At the intersection of Ridgewood and Pauline in Berea, Kentucky, three military veterans assemble raised beds and blend a potting mix for their most recent community garden project. Meanwhile, in a nearby kitchen, others use yesterday’s harvest to cook the community lunch and preserve bushels of tomatoes for winter nourishment. These urban gardeners are members of The Veterans Nutritional Program, one half of the Veterans Agriculture Project supported by Community Farm Alliance’s Agricultural Legacy Initiative.
Veteran, farmer, and family man Mike Lewis is spearheading the VAP program, working with established farmers and Berea residents to provide land and working with Community Farm Alliance to procure funding and develop a new legacy of Kentucky farmers. With national support from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Mike envisions VAP to serve as a model for other farmer and local food development programs in Kentucky and elsewhere. Given the physical skills, work ethic, and problem solving abilities typical of a veteran, this demographic is a great pilot group for the program.
CFA’s Agricultural Legacy Initiative is dedicated to creating a pathway to the land for the next generation of family farms here in Kentucky. This initiative supports beginning farmers while working with veterans seeking new employment and skills. Members in the Nutritional Program have a twelve-month curriculum, from January to December, covering a wide range of topics such as from garden planning, seed starting, and preserving. They use this knowledge to grow food in the community garden. The crops are grown in raised beds with fully-funded seeds, materials, and equipment, and they are in charge of tracking their production. When next year’s batch of gardeners arrive, the alumni are there to show them the ropes. “Veterans make, in my experience, a better farmer,” comments Mike. “They are a natural choice. They are a united group, they tend to work together, support each other.”
The Veterans Entrepreneurial Program is an incubation project that trains veterans for a career in agriculture, provides them with land to cultivate, and opens outlets to sell their goods. Modeled after Spin Farming, apprentices are provided with 25-foot by 40-foot plots of land that they will farm intensively to produce a high yield for a high dollar turnaround. The beauty of this model is that this can be done virtually anywhere from an established farm to a steep hillside to an urban backyard. Landowners enjoy the arrangement because, while they might not want to farm, they are happy to see the land used and are compensated with food.
For the first year members are apprentices, working under someone else and getting paid a stipend. In their second year, the veterans are dropped off in a community or on a farm and given three or four plots to cultivate. The program continues to assist by providing them with seeds and equipment, and by helping to choose what crops to grow and which markets to sell to. In their third year they are fully functional, managing their own farm business, and, hopefully, making a decent living from it. With such low start-up costs and a growing demand for local food, this is a relatively safe venture to begin.
When asked about the long term effects and challenges of the program, Mike says, “The challenge we face is creating the next crop of farmers, but this is such a long-term process and we are very limited in how many veterans we are going to find in this area.” But, even with this challenge, when new vendors show up at the farmers market, more customers come. The supply chain is growing at the same pace as the market demand and, with any luck, there will always be farmers to fill the void.
The Agricultural Legacy Initiative is aiming to solve some of Kentucky’s most pressing agricultural issues. There are many farmers without farms and farms without farmers here in the Bluegrass. As with much of the rest of the nation, we are faced with the issue of increasing–or only just maintaining–the number of farmers growing food in our commonwealth. The Veterans Agriculture Project is a great model for local food economy evolution. “The effect it could have on communities is amazing,” says Mike.