Boots on the Ground Program Expands Reach of Veteran Apprenticeship Farming in North Carolina
A new veterans’ agricultural apprenticeship program at NC State University is poised to increase the reach and impact of farmer veteran programs across the state.
Angel Cruz, academic and extension initiatives manager for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), is the principal investigator on a recently awarded NIFA grant that funds the Boots on the Ground Program, North Carolina’s first registered apprenticeship for military veterans interested in farming. This pilot is a beginning farmer and rancher development program that will provide longer-term training to military veterans through a registered apprenticeship model focused on sustainable farming and farm management skills.
Cruz, who worked closely with Sara Kidd, a farmer and a CEFS graduate fellow in the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences, created this proposal to address veterans’ interest in receiving training that extended beyond six weeks. They uncovered this need by conducting a survey that found approximately 70% of veteran participants from the Veterans Employment Base Camp and Organic Garden (VEBCOG) AGVET training program said they would potentially be interested in a 12 or 18 month long apprenticeship program. With this in mind, Cruz and Kidd developed Boots on the Ground to address this need.
“It’s a long-term, year-long commitment, where they’re working on a farm every day,” Kidd said. “So it’s kind of that medium where you did your shorter term training, but you’re not quite ready to go out and start your own farm or become a full on farm manager.”
With this increased timeframe, the program aims to provide versatile training opportunities for farmers. Veterans will receive training to cultivate a well-rounded skill set, from knowledge of production to marketing. Throughout these training activities, hands-on experiences are integral to the learning process, with veterans receiving over 2,000 hours of hands-on training and 144 hours of classroom and workshop sessions.
These multifaceted training opportunities are not the only benefit of Boots on the Ground for veterans. This program is also a registered apprenticeship program–the only one for veterans interested in agriculture in North Carolina and one of only a handful in the nation–according to Cruz. This official registration should allow for veterans to receive GI Bill benefits for on the job training, pending Department of Veterans Affairs approval, which can assist with funding for career growth activities, from school to less traditional training activities.
“A lot of veterans have families. If somebody is right out of college or in a community college, or young and single, you can move across the state and live on a smaller amount of money on a farm” Cruz said. “But if you have a family that’s not necessarily doable. The GI Bill can make it a lot more feasible economically.”
Working to promote the program’s economic feasibility is just one way the Boots on the Ground Program is catering to veterans’ needs. Cruz said that this program focuses on sustainable farming practices because this skillset is in high demand and can be more resilient to shifts in the economy and the climate.
During the pandemic, for example, Cruz describes how farmers who were tapped into local markets could potentially increase their sales. And local, more direct markets can also connect veterans directly to community members.
Veterans love to serve,” Kidd said. “And smaller scale farms where you’re a lot of times selling direct to consumer, or very involved with your consumers, I think that just gives them those connections they may be missing coming out of the military.
Creating community connections is also the very foundation of Boots on the Ground. Cruz said that North Carolina is one of the top 10 states for veteran populations with a well-established network of veteran farmers.
Cruz and Kidd leveraged these partners when creating their Boots on the Ground proposal. For example, they will work closely with the Soldier to Ag Program, the VEBCOG AGVET Program, and NC community colleges to recruit veterans into their program who may have completed shorter-term training or other agriculture courses. According to Cruz, this new registered apprenticeship model is only possible in NC because of the work that other programs have already done with veterans and agriculture across the state.
Together, these programs will work to provide veterans with a robust farming apprenticeship program and continue to strengthen the farmer veteran community in North Carolina.
“We’re getting to help grow the seed that’s already been planted,” Cruz said.