Published on 06/12/24

Farm Boot Camp trains military veterans to start farms

By Emily Cabrera
Two people during hands-on tractor safety training workshop
UGA has received a $750,000 grant from USDA NIFA to relaunch the Farm Boot Camp for veterans and their spouses over the next three years. The program will provide free monthly workshops, offering participants hands-on training to better prepare them for starting or returning to the farm after their military service. (File photo)

An outreach program offered by the University of Georgia has received federal funding to train military veterans to start their own farms. 

Farm Boot Camp, a specialized training program for military veterans and their spouses, offers free monthly trainings and specialized workshops to provide essential skills and knowledge needed to start or return to farming operations. The program has received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to continue operations through the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) and College of Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS). 

The grant is part of a larger initiative called Farm Again, a statewide program that supports individuals in production agriculture who face challenges due to injuries, disabilities or chronic health conditions. In Georgia, the program is managed jointly by UGA Cooperative Extension in CAES and the Institute on Human Development and Disability (IHDD) in FACS. Program coordinators are Glen Rains, a professor in the CAES Department of Entomology, and IHDD Director Zolinda Stoneman, a university professor in FACS.

Kyle Haney, a rural health manager and public service professional in FACS, oversees much of the program’s daily coordination and works directly with veteran participants as project manager. Haney said Farm Boot Camp originated from a growing number of military veterans seeking services through AgrAbility, a Farm Again program that provides worksite accommodations and technology to farmers with disabilities or health issues.

Tailored training to meet the unique needs of veteran farmers

Veterans coming through the AgrAbility program required more foundational training to start or return to farming after their military service, said Mason Dean, service coordinator for AgrAbility.

Survey responses and enrollment data from other Farm Again programs reveal a higher prevalence of disability among veterans entering agriculture than previously realized.

“As more beginning veteran farmers and ranchers with disabilities began to reach out to AgrAbility for assistance, it became evident they needed a more tailored program to increase their likelihood of success,” said Dean. “To address these unique needs, Farm Boot Camp aims to equip veterans with the knowledge, resources and network necessary to transition into meaningful careers in agriculture.”

The Farm Boot Camp program kicked off in April with a tractor safety training session led by Rains, the state safety specialist with UGA Extension, to teach participants critical skills and offer hands-on experience operating machinery.

Hands-on learning and community building

Attendees during a hands-on greenhouse workshop
Workshops offer practical training and technical support for various farming essentials. As part of the Farm Again program, coordinators also provide assistance and resources to individuals with disabilities. (File photo)

“There is really no substitute for hands-on learning, especially regarding farm machinery,” Rains said. “These one-day workshops are a way for veterans new to farming to get intensive training to build their confidence to work independently.”

Farm Boot Camp has partnered with several farms to offer hands-on workshops in specialized areas. Doc’s Healing Hives, led by a veteran in North Georgia, provides beekeeping training, while Mushroom Mountain in South Carolina specializes in mushroom cultivation. Vegetable and beef production training sessions are conducted in-house through CAES.

Participants also can work with the UGA Veterans Legal Clinic for legal help related to their farm operations and goals.

Beginning this year, Haney said the program has partnered with the Farmer Veteran Coalition and its Homegrown By Heroes program to expand the network and support veteran farmers, offering marketing assistance to distinguish their products as veteran-produced.

“We also prioritize having veterans on staff at every event because we’ve seen how important that is for our participants,” said Haney. “Training sessions with veteran cohorts uniquely facilitate learning and community-building among participants. Veterans excel in communication, resource sharing and collaboration, and they’ve truly formed a supportive community rooted in their shared history.”

Recognizing veterans' unique strengths and experiences, Haney said many who enroll in the program view farming as a means of continued service to their country, giving back to their communities by helping feed them.

Honoring legacies and building futures

With the average age of American farmers hovering around 65 and many family farms being sold, programs like Farm Boot Camp are crucial. By providing veterans with the training and support to start or take over farm businesses, the program helps preserve the legacy of many farms throughout the state.

For many enrollees, agriculture is a grounding focus, occupying their minds from dawn to dusk and diverting attention from past, sometimes difficult, military experiences. With the growing need for a skilled workforce and increasing demand for locally sourced food, there has never been a better time for veterans to join the ranks of America's farmers and help feed the nation.

Cody Stonecypher, a Marine Corps veteran who participated in the first Farm Boot Camp, now operates a blueberry farm in Eastman, Georgia, with his cousin, a fellow veteran who also attended courses during the first program. As third-generation farmers, the cousins are slowly building their blueberry and nursery operation, Stoney’s Homegrown.

Stonecypher said keeping the family farm running is a way to honor his grandfather. He and his cousin both hold full-time jobs and dedicate evenings and weekends to running the farm. Farming appeals to him because this kind of work provides him with much-needed autonomy after so many years of explicitly following orders.

“Veterans typically have a good work ethic and are accustomed to hard labor, especially outdoors, and can see that the work they put in is the work they’ll get out,” explained Stonecypher. Many of the qualities he developed through his military experience, such as resilience, particularly under stress, and the ability to quickly pivot when things don’t work out as planned, are valuable skills on the farm.

He values the practical information he gets from the workshops and the continuous one-on-one support from program coordinators like Dean and Haney.

“There hasn’t been a single workshop I’ve attended that I didn’t take something away that has directly helped me grow the farm business,” said Stonecypher. “The coordinators of this program have been tremendously helpful in answering specific, technical questions and connecting us to the resources we need to make this business work.”

Expecting to train 200 participants over the next three years, Haney encourages veterans and their spouses to participate in annual programming to build their knowledge and explore different tracks of interest. With ongoing support from the USDA and other partners, Farm Boot Camp aims to empower future generations of veterans in agriculture, ensuring they have the tools and resources for long-term success.

Emily Cabrera is a writer and public relations coordinator for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia.