For the past three years, Cornell’s Farm Ops Program has armed veterans across New York State with knowledge and resources to become successful farmers and re-adjust to civilian life.
Farm Ops began in 2015 under the Cornell Small Farms Program and has since grown to include over 1,000 members across the state, according to a University press release. The program provides veterans with scholarships and classes in everything from maple syrup tapping to mushroom cultivation to beekeeping.
Shaun Bluethenthal ’18, farmer veteran program associate, traded in his combat boots for carrot roots after a tour in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps. In 2015, Bluethenthal came to Cornell to get his degree in agricultural science and joined Farm Ops shortly after graduating.
Now, Bluethenthal helps run the program to help veterans adjust back into civilian life and learn valuable skills of the trade. According to Bluethenthal, the programs provide an education that helps veterans avoid many of the pitfalls often faced by new farmers.
“It’s so valuable for them to be able to reach programs like this for resources and information so they don’t make these mistakes, and there’s a lot of them that they’re going to make,” Bluethenthal told The Sun in an interview.
Farm Ops Project Coordinator Dean Koyanagi has run the program since its inception shortly after the Agricultural Act of 2014, which added veterans as a special focus group along with socially disadvantaged minorities and women.
Like those the program seeks to help, Koyanagi is a veteran and a farmer. In 1987-91, he did anti-terrorism work in the Marines, and now owns Tree Gate Farm near Ithaca.
Koyanagi said that even after the Farm Bill passed, it was unclear how to accomplish the goals it set. The Veterans Administration had no means of direct support, but Koyanagi said that veterans are equipped with many skills to be successful farmers.
“There are certain things that veterans bring to farming, you always hear ‘we work hard, we can stay up late,’ well great, that’s a cliché but it really is that you have the discipline and follow-through to push through when things are hard, and that’s farming,” Koyanagi told The Sun.
Veterans might have an extensive military skill set, but no amount of target practice will help when it comes to finding tractor repair or where to buy hay for livestock. Farm Ops connects participants with Cooperative Extension Offices available in every county to fill knowledge gaps and provide ongoing support.
Koyanagi said that Cornell has “one of the best extensions in the country.” Direct support from experts in the field has already helped farmers across the state, according to the press release.
Koyanagi emphasized that Bluethenthal and other young farmers generally take a different route to farming than his own generation, and Farm Ops works to support a diverse range of experience levels and commercial scale.
“The trajectories are all over the map. We’ve got Vietnam era veterans who physically shouldn’t be out there farming who want to start a beehive or maple syrup, to the 24 year-old veteran who’s had this plan all their life, who grew up on a farm, so it’s totally different,” Koyanagi said.
When former Marine Corps Cpl. Walter Palmer had trouble diagnosing strange symptoms in his lamb, Italy, he turned to CCE for help. With a quick consultation and a vitamin E and selenium shot from Jonathan Barter, a farming mentor provided by Farm Ops, Italy made a full recovery.
Former Staff Sgt. Logan Yarbrough’s accounting consultation — set up through Farm Ops — helped him make his goat farm in Brooktondale a profitable operation, according to a University press release.
Cornell Farm Ops collaborates with the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Armed to Farm program, which gives veteran farmers intensive weeklong on-site farm training.
“Having veteran-focused events, there’s this bond with veterans that will talk to each other more openly, so that brings that veteran into that community of other farmers so they’ll support them so they’ll be more successful,” Koyanagi said.