USDA Under Secretary Visits Veteran Farmer Registered Apprenticeship Program

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A delegation of United States Department of Agriculture officials, led by Chief Scientist and Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics Chavonda Jacobs-Young, learned about a successful program to introduce military veterans to farming on a visit to a Wayne County farm on Sept. 7.

Jacobs-Young toured J&J Martin Produce and met veterans and mentors participating in Boots on the Ground, an apprenticeship program developed and administered by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (a partnership of NC State and North Carolina A&T State universities, along with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services) with support from NC State Extension.

“This brings together two of our top industries, agriculture and military,” said Angel Cruz, CEFS Academic and Extension Initiatives Manager. “Registered agricultural apprenticeships are a viable pathway for veterans to transition into becoming farm owners and farm operators. We’re excited about the future and we hope that we’re the first of many registered apprenticeships in North Carolina and in the South.”

The apprenticeship options include an 18-month sustainable vegetable production program and a more general 12 month program just for veterans. The programs are supported by funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a division of USDA.

Related: Apprenticeship program introduces veterans to farming

“The story of small farmers is very much the story of America,” Jacobs-Young said. “Family-owned farms, like the Martin Family Farm, are the bedrock of our communities. Not only is this farm feeding the North Carolina community, they are supporting veterans through the NIFA-funded Boots on the Ground: NC Veteran Farmer Apprenticeship program and building the next generation of farmers. I was honored to tour their farm and learn about the great work they are doing to support their community.”

NC State Extension Director Rich Bonanno spoke of the importance of programs that provide hands-on teaching to beginning farmers.

“Workforce development is something that’s incredibly important,” he said. “When you’ve been farming your whole life, you know that every day is going to be some sort of controlled chaos. But you need to learn that before you go out and buy a piece of property and buy some equipment. And so it’s great to have these programs and I’m thankful that we have the staff between N.C. State and N.C. A&T State to be able to work with producers across the state to make a difference.”

USDA Deputy Secretary Chavonda Jacobs-Young registered apprenticeship veterans NC State Extension CEFS

USDA Under Secretary Chavonda Jacobs-Young with CEFS staff, apprentice farmers and mentors.

Jacobs-Young earned three degrees from NC State’s College of Natural Resources — a B.S. in paper science and engineering in 1989, an M.S. in wood and paper science in 1992, and a Ph.D. in wood and paper science in 1998. 

“I am extremely passionate about the field of agriculture,” she said. “We know that agriculture is the No. 1 industry in North Carolina. We are here because we care. We want to implement programs that matter and make a difference.”

The apprenticeship is making a difference in the lives of Darius and Shameeka McKoy. Darius joined the program in 2022 after serving in the U.S. Air Force for more than 21 years. Shameeka applied and was accepted when she retired from the Air Force after hitting the 20-year mark earlier this year.

“It has been very beneficial because of the information that we’re learning here,” Shameeka said. “You’re putting your hands on, and you have that mentoring opportunity. You gain that knowledge to bring it back to your farm, as well as formal trainings, conferences and workshops.”

The McKoys, who have started to grow vegetables on their own 38-acre farm in Sampson County, are learning under the tutelage of Jeanette Martin Horn and Joyce Martin Bowden, sisters who own J&J Martin Produce and N.C. A&T Cooperative Extension’s 2023 Small Farmers of the Year.

“We’re so happy to have an opportunity to share what we are passionate about doing, which is farming,” Jeanette said. “One of the No. 1 reasons that Joyce and I chose to work with the veteran apprentices is because this farm originated from a veteran. My great granddaddy, once he got out of the Union Army he came back and bought this farm. The family has maintained it for over 140 years.”

USDA Deputy Secretary Chavonda Jacobs-Young registered apprenticeship veterans NC State Extension CEFS

USDA Under Secretary Chavonda Jacobs-Young with Joyce Martin Bowden, one of the two sisters who own J&J Martin Produce.

Other veteran apprentices attending the event and telling their stories were Marlena Chieffo, who served in the U.S. Army and is learning on a farm in Robeson County, and Temika Parker, who served in the U.S. Navy for 15 years.

“This program wouldn’t happen without the important pilot funding from USDA and our partnerships with farmers, the veterans community, and our partner organizations like Cooperative Extension,” said CEFS co-director Michelle Schroeder-Moreno. “While only in its second year, we look forward to expanding this program with more veterans and host farmers across the state.”