Military veterans find good fit in Michigan’s agricultural economy

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 like 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 a certification through the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. Over 10 to 24 months depending on the program, graduates learn important skills in agricultural, environmental, and applied technologies. 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. 

Tom Smith, program coordinator at MSU, Vets to Ag has helped about 70 veterans go through the various programs with the ultimate goal of getting them employed in a relevant field. Michigan's food and agriculture workforce totals about 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 MSU, is a retired Army veteran that served the United States for 16 years. He's also a Program Coordinator for Vets to Ag. 

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

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, director of the Institute of Agricultural Technology, helped with a prior meat cutting and processing program. "It was a six-week program," he says. "The first two were spent at the Kellogg Biological Station, close to the VA Hospital in Battle Creek. The location allowed [the veterans and program directors] to create a team atmosphere, and go through basic training like animal parts, safety, and financial accounting."

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 done before. Vets to Ag teaches not only agriculture principles but also 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. 

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

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.   

There are other options for veterans looking to join the food and agriculture workforce. Recently MSU, 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.

The program, specializes in food production, processing, and distribution, is intense. Students are in class for 13 weeks, five days a week, 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. The organizers are currently collecting information for Michigan's first guide to veteran-produced agricultural products, which 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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