Cultivating Veteran Farmers
When Connie May enrolled at the University of Idaho she knew that she wanted to use her degree to help veterans. After serving in the U.S. Air Force for more than 20 years, she had a personal interest in helping other veterans succeed.
A documentary film on veterans who transition into fields as sustainable farmers helped sharpen her focus while pursuing degrees in both horticulture and urban agriculture and food and nutrition in U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
Blending Horticulture and Nutrition
May, 49, enlisted in the Air Force in 1987 after graduating from high school in Topeka, Kansas. She served as a public health technician and in administrative roles until her retirement from active duty in 2015. After retiring, May decided to use her Post-9/11 GI Bill® to obtain a bachelor’s degree and sought out nutrition and horticulture programs in Idaho to be closer to her husband’s family. U of I was the only university that offered both. She will earn her horticulture degree in December 2018 and her nutrition degree in May 2019.
“You get your nutrition from the foods you eat and you have to grow those foods,” May said. “When I made the decision to do both programs, nutrition was the program I was going to utilize as a career. Horticulture is what I wanted to do more for a sustainable lifestyle, getting off the industrialized food grid. As things have progressed, I wanted to try and do something that utilized both programs.”
Battlefields to Farm Fields
May also knew she wanted to use her degrees to help other veterans, but wasn’t sure what that would look like.
“When I made the decision to go back to school I was thinking that I wanted to do something that I could use both my degrees to help veterans,” May said. “I had some interactions with some of the wounded warriors and services provided and I felt like I wanted to do something, too.”
In November 2016, May attended the Farm and Food Expo in Spokane, Washington, where she watched a showing of “Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farm Fields,” a documentary film that champions the growing network of combat veterans who are transitioning into careers as sustainable farmers, ranchers and food producers.
“That’s when I said, ‘there it is,’” May said. “Nutrition wasn’t a part of that, but putting that kind of concept into Idaho I thought would be great.”
May reached out to University of Idaho Extension area educator, Ariel Agenbroad, who specializes in community food systems and small farms, and pitched the idea of starting a small farms program for Idaho veterans. She spent summer 2018 in Boise working with Agenbroad to refine her concept.
“I reached out to veterans that had reached out to Ariel and got their thoughts on what should happen. They suggested that it be veteran-focused so they felt more comfortable interacting with one another,” May said. “I talked to 27 different entities to try and see what our needs are, what resources we have, is there land we can use, grant money, trying to identify all that.”
Piloting a Program
A UI Extension Innovation Project Grant will allow May to pilot the program beginning in spring 2019 through UI Extension offices in Latah and Ada County. She will utilize a combination of online instruction through the Cultivating Success webinar series and hands-on classes where participants can apply the concepts they are learning.
May’s ultimate goals are to establish a formal veterans farm at each of the UI Extension locations across the state, especially those that have a military base or large veteran population. She’d also like to offer an agriculture certificate, apprenticeship opportunities and nutrition advising services.
“I want to give these folks an opportunity for employment through apprenticeships or maybe getting an ag certificate that they can use with their GI Bill® and if they decide that they want to go further they can go get an associate or bachelor’s, or go out and start their own farm,” May said. “I want to give them that opportunity.
“I had a goal when I started all this and it’s coming to fruition. I’m very excited about it.”
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Published in December 2018