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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, 50, 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. “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 and 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. “While active duty, 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 worked 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

May and Agenbroad piloted the Harvest Heroes program in 2019 in Moscow and Nampa. Twenty-one veterans completed the 10-month program, learning how to plant, harvest and market fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. The course includes a combination of online instruction and hands-on classes. The Nampa site at the Veterans Liberty Garden produced over 1,400 pounds of produce, which was harvested and donated to the Boise Rescue Mission.

May wants 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. Plans are underway to expand to an additional site in Kuna in 2020 and Boise in 2021 and a USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program Grant will help support the program for the next three years. The UI Extension, Latah County office in Moscow is also hosting a Harvest Heroes program which is now being offered online.

“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

Three people with hoses and tools work in a large town garden plot.
Harvest Heroes participants work at the Nampa locations, planting and watering in early June 2019. Photo credit: U of I intern Stuart Tice.
Rows of green plants in the ground.
The Nampa location flourishes after the instillation of irrigation lines in July 2019. Photo credit: Dan Murphy.

Extension ExPress

March 2020

Find more articles about recent Extension work in this quarter's Extension ExPress.

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