Sep. 27—It never made sense to Andrew Joyce that the area where he resided in rural western Pennsylvania had plenty of farmable land, yet so many people were unable to get healthy food.
Most children in Armstrong County and elsewhere grow up in families that struggle to afford food, he said, and older people without transportation get much of what they eat from cans sold in dollar stores.
So after Joyce finished his five years in the Marine Corps and found that performing legal work was not how he wanted to spend his time, he applied for the veteran farmer training program at Rodale Institute in Maxatawny Township.
It’s through that Rodale initiative each year that about 20 first-time farmers — about half veterans, half civilians — learn how to get started in agriculture while being housed at nearby Kutztown University.
And it was there Tuesday that U.S. Sen. Bob Casey visited to praise that program and the institute’s overall work
“You can almost feel the future being invented here at Rodale,” the Scranton Democrat said. “It’s just so inspirational.”
Casey met several veteran farmers enrolled in this year’s program and spoke about the importance of federal funding going toward climate-smart agriculture, describing Rodale as an international leader in advancing organic farming.
“It’s critical,” he said of the work being done at Rodale and its need to receive federal support.
The farmer training program provides up to ninth months of hands-on, paid training to prepare its students for careers in organic agriculture.
The civilian portion of the program is funded by the Giant grocery store chain, and the veteran portion through several grants from sources such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Pennsylvania Veterans Trust Fund.
Those who graduate go on to own or run agricultural businesses or work to help others in that field, said Justin Barclay, veteran programs manager. He spoke of numerous success stories in the six years since the program began.
Recent graduates have gone on to things like raising mushrooms organically in the Poconos, growing heirloom seeds on one of George Washington’s old farms in Virginia and farming tomatoes in New Jersey. The latter of those farmers is a Vietnam veteran, showing the program can benefit all ages, Barclay said
Joyce, who is 32, will wrap up at Rodale soon and head back to western Pennsylvania, where he’s ready to grow carrots, cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables organically on a large-scale and help fill the store shelves he has seen empty during the recent supply chain crisis.
He also wants to grow enough extra vegetables to create an emergency food storage supply for those in need, something he said is long overdue in his home county and elsewhere.
Two-time Iraq veteran Ramon Madrid got into the program for a somewhat different reason, the New Orleans native said.
After spending 11 years in the Army National Guard he got out and found himself struggling with mental health problems, in part stemming from his deployments.
Then one day he stuck a shovel into the dirt in his father-in-law’s garden and noticed something.
“It felt pretty therapeutic,” he said.
As he thought about how much of his hometown’s farmland is either eroding or polluted, he realized the Rodale training could not only be good for him, but also allow him to share what he learned with other New Orleans farmers.
Now he’s looking forward to going back and doing so.
“It’s been great,” he said of the program, during which he spent much of his time being mentored in Rodale’s farm fields. “I feel like I’ve received years worth of knowledge.”
He encouraged other veterans to consider farming as well.
“I want them to know it can be a way for them to tackle their mental health issues, that it can be a way to improve,” he said.
Barclay has seen a number of veterans in the program like Madrid, he said, looking to find meaning and a new mission outside the military.
Without such a program, though, it’s tough for them or any other first-time farmers to receive the necessary level of instruction to work in agriculture on their own, said Leesport native and Kutztown University graduate Daniel Kemper, a master trainer at Rodale.
Most farmers, he said, are too busy and too focused on production to provide such teaching to novice workers.
Casey thanked Rodale for providing that instruction, particularly to veterans, who have already given much to their country and are looking to give more by providing food and doing so in an environmentally-friendly way that combats climate change, he said.
Casey was struck by Rodale’s motto of Healthy Food = Healthy Food = Healthy People, which he said sums up the necessity of more widespread organic farm practices in Pennsylvania and nationwide.
Such agricultural changes also provide economic benefits to farmers and society in general, which Rodale’s studies are proving, he said.
Last week Rodale received the largest government grant in its 75-year history, $25 million as part of the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative.
The program is designed to support the production and marketing of agricultural commodities that are produced using practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon. The grant to Rodale is among $2.8 billion the USDA is doling out through the initiative for 70 projects across the U.S.
Rodale Institute’s farmer training programs
Those looking to enroll in Rodale Institute’s farmer training or veteran farming training programs for next year can do so through the education link at rodaleinstitute.org/.
The program has about 20 openings each year depending on the grant it receives and gets about 100 applications, accepting about 10 veterans and 10 civilians.