Robert Elliott says agriculture saved his life.
That’s why the former Marine has dedicated his career to building and growing the Soldier to Agriculture program, designed to connect veterans to the plentiful jobs available in North Carolina’s agriculture sector.
“When I transitioned from the Marines and I came home and couldn’t find a job, I was having a really hard time coping with civilian life,” Elliott says. “One day I just started farming.”
After delivering a speech at a Rural Advancement Foundation International event early in his farming career, he began fielding calls from other veterans wanting to do the same thing, as well as media interested in telling his story.
“I found out quickly that there was a huge need for vets to find their way to farms, so I started developing a little program … a nonprofit,” he says. For his work, Elliott was named the 2016 Innovative Young Farmer of the Year. He crossed paths at the awards ceremony with Beth Wilson, director of NC State’s Agricultural Institute (AGI).
The rest, he says, is history.
Today Elliott not only directs the Soldier to Agriculture Program, but also serves as a teacher, recruiter and coordinator between AGI and Ft. Bragg, where the program is housed.
He also played a key role in securing a recent $150,000 grant from Golden LEAF, which breathed new life into the program.
“This gift means everything,” Elliott says. “This means I can continue to work alongside AGI faculty to grow the program and make it sustainable.”
I’m ecstatic and hopeful that we’re going to make a big change in the long term for veterans in North Carolina in agriculture
“I’m ecstatic and hopeful that we’re going to make a big change in the long term for veterans in North Carolina in agriculture,” Wilson says. “This program is so new and so different and has never been done before, so it was difficult to secure federal funding because we didn’t fit a particular mold. It was a real gift that Golden LEAF had the faith in a new idea and is helping to push it forward.”
Theresa Masengale, one of the program’s first graduates, retired from the Army in 2015 after 26 years of service. Her husband is still on active duty, so they’re raising their two sons near Ft. Bragg.
“I’ve always had the desire to simplify our life and go back to roots,” she says, “We have horses and chickens and I’m going to grow a garden … I want a simple, wholesome lifestyle. So when my husband saw a poster about the Soldier to Agriculture program, he knew I’d love it.”
The classes covered everything from business to beekeeping to sustainable farming, Masengale says, and included hands-on work in the field, classroom instruction and field trips to working farms. Even a local chef demonstrated how to cook homegrown food.
“If this program weren’t in place, we’d never have had that exposure,” Masengale says. “Every class focused on a different subject; we even built and grew hydroponics and developed a business plan.”
She made contacts through the classes, creating a network that will help her succeed.
“It made me realize what I wanted to do and it reaffirmed my interest in homesteading,” she says. “Now I know what avenues to pursue, what other classes to take and programs that are available … I would not have known about those without this program that supports veterans and their families by giving them the tools and education they need to succeed in agriculture.”
For Mark Sorrells, Golden LEAF senior vice president, this grant hits close to home.
“My grandfather was a farmer, and my father owned a general merchandise; I grew up and lived agriculture for my entire life,” he says. “Being able to come back into rural areas and put money where good ideas are cultivating is a very rewarding experience. And to be able to see those seeds grow into full-fledged projects that really impact the lives of individuals, that’s invaluable.”
In addition to supporting Elliott’s full-time salary, the Golden LEAF grant provides for much-needed equipment and classroom space. It also, as Wilson says, lays the groundwork for the future.
“This is just the beginning,” she says. “Thanks to the Golden LEAF grant, we see this program as something that could grow bigger and bigger. I’m excited about what the future holds.”