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Military veterans find good fit in Michiganís agricultural jobs

Learning about propagation

A lesson in the meat cutting and processing program

Chainsaw training through the Vets to Ag program

Participants in the Vets to Ag program

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.  Other stories in this series can be found here.

Those who are responsible for feeding our world and keeping up with the forever changing challenges facing the food and agriculture industry have come together to work with those who have defended our nation. 

Michigan State University Institute of Agricultural Technology accompanied by extension agencies and some of the food and agriculture industry’s leaders, work with partners, such as the Veterans’ Services Division of the Michigan Workforce Development Agency and the VA Hospital System, to train veterans and ultimately help them obtain a job within the field as part of a program called Vets to Ag. 

Founded in 1894, the Institute of Agricultural Technology is an educational program that generates graduates through practical learning and skill enhancement in agricultural, environmental, and applied technologies. MSU and community college based certificate programs vary from 10 to 24 months in length and are taught by the faculty and staff of Michigan State. The Vets to Ag program is a non-credit training program that expands the reach of the Institute to serve U.S. military veterans looking for shorter duration training. 

The Vets to Ag program has helped about 70 veterans go through the various programs with an ultimate goal of obtaining a job in relevant food and agriculture positions, says Tom Smith, Program Coordinator at Michigan State University. The veterans hope to someday become part of Michigan’s food and agriculture workforce. Total employment resulting from this sector is 923,000, or about 22 percent of the state’s employment.

Nick Babcock, a current master’s degree student in the College of Agriculture at Michigan State, is a retired Army veteran that served the United States for 16 years. He's also a Program Coordinator for Vets to Ag. 

"What is really unique is agriculture, in general, strongly parallels the military lifestyle. Agriculture allows vets to continue to serve our country through providing fuel, food, and other products to Americans," Babcock says. 

Programs vary in length, and they include but are not limited to landscape and nursery management, parks, recreation and natural resources management, food production, processing and distribution, as well as meat cutting and processing. The program is either a residential or non-residential program depending on what is being learned. Training includes both comprehensive classroom and hands-on work and may include an extended on-the-job component. 

Randy Showerman, PhD., Director of the Institute of Agricultural Technology, helped with a prior meat cutting and processing program. "It was a six-week program. The first two weeks were spent at the Kellogg Biological Station, close to the VA Hospital in Battle Creek. The location allowed us (the veterans and program directors) to create a team atmosphere, and go through basic training like animal parts, safety, and financial accounting," says Showerman. After the two weeks at the Kellogg Biological Station, the program moved onto campus, and trainees worked for the remaining four weeks in the MSU Meat Lab, a state-of-the-art training and meat processing facility. 

Making a conscious effort to understand the difficulties that may come with being a veteran are part of the program. Because of that, there is on-campus housing where veterans enrolled in the program could live in the dormitories. Vets to Ag even makes it possible for vets to relocate from anywhere in the United States in order to enroll when funds are available.

Programs are designed to realistically represent the needs of employer partners who have expressed their interest in the program. The meat processing program, for example, not only went over the many techniques that come with meat cutting and processing, but it also taught students how to deal with the environmental temperatures in a meat locker and how to deal with certain body stiffness that may come with the job. 

Overall, the program's goal is to provide vets with an opportunity that is different than what they’ve ever done before. Vets to Ag teaches not only agriculture principles but it also teaches the veterans how to do things like build a resume, manage finances, and follow other basic life principles. "We try to stay in touch with them after the training ends to continue to support them," Smith says. 

Who is the program for? An MSU report puts it this way: "This program is available to any United States Veteran that has registered with the sponsoring Michigan Works! Office, meets the military discharge requirements, is physically and mentally capable of satisfactorily completing the program, and who is able to commit to the training schedule without work or personal conflicts. This training is available to service-disabled veterans as long as their disability does not inhibit them from participating and completing the program. A criminal record does not preclude participation in the program with exceptions for violent crimes and criminal sexual conduct. Applicants must complete all of the required paperwork and go through a rigorous set of assessments and screening processes." 

"The program offers a structure that a lot of veterans are looking for after leaving the military," Babcock says. 

The program works closely with resources such as the VA Hospital to help those that may need any sort of counseling or suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD as it is commonly known.   
Vets to Ag is completely grant funded and it is always a challenge to make sure funding streams are available to continue the program. Smith and others are continuously looking into grants as well as sponsors and benefactors to continue to make the program possible. There have been five successful sessions thus far.

Other options are available, too. Recently Michigan State University, Smith and associates at Forgotten Harvest, a food rescue nonprofit, have developed a program based out of Detroit that offers a short course to both veterans and civilians who may have significant employment barriers.

It specializes in food production, processing, and distribution. That program is 13 weeks, five days a week, for seven hours each day. "That would be the equivalent, in contact hours, to one year of college, taking a full load of courses," Smith says.

As the overall program expands, the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan, which has almost 400 veteran farm members, has agreed to partner with Vets to Ag, serving as mentors to the program's trainees.

Another program in the works is one from Michigan Food and Farming Systems. It is in the process of collecting information for Michigan’s first guide to veteran produced agricultural products for 2018. The product guide is expected to become the primary method buyers and consumers will use to connect with veterans on their farms

"All too often we forget those that provided service to this country and how to help them re-acclimate to life as a civilian," Showerman says, "working with the vets through this program is very rewarding for everyone."

Deven King is a full-time journalist, raises and sells show cattle, is an avid Michigan State University sports fan, and a freelance agricultural writer born and raised in East Lansing. She holds a bachelor of science in Agriculture Communications and Journalism with a focus in Animal Science from Kansas State University. 
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