Farming with veterans in mind: Troops to Tractors

Farming with veterans in mind: Troops to Tractorsby Tamara Scully

Troops to Tractors, a program of the Pennsylvania Veteran Farming Project (PAVFP), is dedicated to assisting veterans with obtaining the funding, skills and mentorship needed to successfully transition from a military career to an agricultural one. PAVFP services are available to all active duty military and veterans with honorable discharges and their spouses.

The PAVFP, a nonprofit established in 2015, is overseen by an advisory board of six military veterans and one spouse, and is a “homegrown network of veterans, military and their spouses who farm or operate agribusinesses,” said Mimi Thomas-Brooker, PAVFP project director. “We help beginning veteran farmers navigate the maze of available programs and connect veteran farmers of all experience levels with other mutually beneficial business relationships, and promote veteran farms and agribusinesses to the public. Our philosophy is that farming is often a family endeavor, so we want to empower families to thrive in agriculture.”

The Troops to Tractors program was designed specifically to facilitate on-farm paid apprenticeships, which are available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as an educational benefit exclusively for those veterans with GI Bill eligibility. Troops to Tractors works to connect this select group of veterans with state-approved mentor farmers for paid on-the-job training. Troops to Tractors facilitates the approval of mentor farmers by Pennsylvania, and assists veterans with accessing their educational benefits. By making it easier for military veterans and farm mentors to navigate the requirements of the VA on-the-job (OTJ) apprenticeship program, Troops to Tractors plays a vital role in making farming dreams a reality for many veterans.

Regional workshops and on-farm tours are a vital part of the mentoring experience, bringing together the military and ag communities to network and share experiences, Thomas-Brooker said. Troops to Tractors and the PAVFP are planning their next event, to be hosted by the Glen Cauffman Farm in Millersburg, on Aug. 7 and 8. The event, “Establishing and Sustaining a Small Ruminant Operation,” includes business planning during Friday’s workshop. Saturday will feature a tour of the small ruminant and commodity crop operation at Glen Cauffman Farm.

Small Farm Opportunities

On Cauffman’s 190-acre farm, 200-plus Angora goats graze a variety of forages. Their fiber and finished mohair products are marketed under the farm’s Pure American Naturals label. The farm has been recognized for a multitude of conservation measures, including creating wetlands to provide wildlife habitat, taking marginal land out of production, using cover crops, crop rotation, contour planting, contour strips, and continuous no-till practices since 1984. Twenty acres are planted in native prairie grasses, via the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. The farm was a Pennsylvania Leopold Conservation Award finalist in 2018 and 2019.

Cauffman isn’t only interested in mohair and conservation. He’s also certified to teach business planning and as a crop advisor, and holds degrees in animal science and agricultural engineering. Cauffman believes that cost-share opportunities to implement on-farm conservation practices, many of which are available through NRCS, paid on-the-job training through VA apprenticeship programs, networking events with other like-minded farmers and a savvy approach to marketing can be combined to enhance small farm profitability.

“By building a bridge of knowledge between small family and veteran farms and consumer consciousness, a farm conservation story boosts profit opportunities,” Cauffman said.

Small ruminant farms are a good fit for many beginning farmers, with a low initial investment and rapid growth in herd size possible. Cauffman began with 10 does and a buck, and grew his herd from there. While the return on any investment may take a few years, a detailed enterprise budget before investing will help beginning farmers to determine the profitability of their venture, he said.

By embarking on a farming enterprise, veterans may be putting to use some of the skills they already possess. Cauffman recounted a conversation he had with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue regarding farmer mentorship of veterans, in which Perdue compared the qualities needed for military service and those needed for farming. Working in harsh weather, working until the mission is accomplished, facing challenges and goals that need to be accomplished with time constraints and making well-analyzed decisions were some of the attributes required in both types of work.

Cauffman is hosting the Troops to Tractors workshop in conjunction with Ben Reisinger, whose wife Lynn works for Cauffman. The couple is exploring options for their own small farm dream. Reisinger served for more than two decades with the National Guard and has found respite in working with the Angora goats at Glen Cauffman Farm. He is actively exploring business opportunities that would allow him to build upon the positive experiences he’s had. He’s eager to share his insights and highlight the farming opportunities available to veterans with others, so they too can benefit.

“Veterans care about other veterans and will share knowledge and advice with each other,” Reisinger said. “I would like to share Troops to Tractors with other veterans because there are many valuable lessons and resources available. Troops to Tractors has worked to partner with many of these resources to provide assistance for veterans seeking agricultural lifestyles. As my wife and I venture into farming, I believe Troops to Tractors will provide advice and support.”

The VA OJT apprentice program, which Troops to Tractors helps facilitate in Pennsylvania, is a small one. But it has the potential to assist many more veterans find their next opportunities in agriculture. According to Thomas-Brooker, one veteran has completed the program and gone on to successfully farm, now owning a fresh market after working on the farm he apprenticed with for four years. Another is about to complete his apprenticeship in August. The program is seeking additional mentor farms, with only six approved in the state at this time.

For more information on the VA OJT apprenticeship program contact Troops for Tractors at PAvetsfarm@gmail.com.

Register for the Troops to Tractors workshops at Glen Cauffman Farms at TroopstoTractors.org/events.

2020-08-13T12:34:29-05:00August 13, 2020|Eastern Edition, Mid Atlantic, Western Edition|0 Comments

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