Local veterans heard about a new program to help them get started in agriculture-based businesses at a meeting in Marlinton last Wednesday evening. Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture Program (VWAP) Director James McCormick presented an information briefing at the Municipal Building.
McCormick, a decorated Army combat vet with three tours in Iraq, started the VWAP program in early 2013 with support from Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick. The Legislature provided $275,000 in initial funding.
During the presentation Wednesday evening, McCormick said the VWAP has seven key strategies: identify veterans who want to become involved in farming; market farm products of veterans already involved in agriculture; build a brand for veteran farmer products; seek property that can be used for veteran farmer projects; cooperate with the Veterans Administration certified agriculture education programs; work to develop rehabilitation sites and technical assistance resources; and create an environment for long-term growth of veteran-owned and operated agribusinesses.
“I wouldn’t a say agriculture is dying but we definitely don’t have enough people engaged in it,” said McCormick. “We have veterans who are returning home. We have veterans who have been home for a long time. Jobs are short. The coal industry, the timber industry and some of the other industries have played out. A lot of people don’t want to hear that.
“I almost get heckled down in southern West Virginia in the coalfields. I’ll have 15 to 30 people at a meeting and I’ll say, ‘we’ve got to figure out something to do besides coal mining.’ Somebody will argue and I’ll say, ‘how many people here have applied for a coal mining job?’ All of them will raise their hand. Then I ask, ‘how many of you have gotten a job?’ and all the hands go down.”
The VWAP start-up coincided with a growing movement toward local food production and purchase.
“We need to figure out something else to do and there is an option here with agriculture,” said McCormick. “You can start supplying the food, just to your local farmers market, and you can make some money doing that.”
McCormick said many veterans got started in beekeeping and honey production through the WVAP.
“Beekeeping has been extremely popular,” he said. “Setting up bee colonies and apiaries – unbelievable growth. We grew by 53 new veteran beekeepers, just in this first class. That’s 106 new bee colonies in West Virginia and they’re spread out from the eastern panhandle to the southern coalfields.”
The director said the success rate with VWAP bee colonies was close to 100 percent. No colonies have collapsed and just one colony swarmed and relocated.
The director described a wide variety of agricultural projects started by veterans in the program, including organic vegetables, livestock production, and compost production.
“This is the small farmer type concept that we’re looking at for our veterans,” he said. “You can become a commercial supplier of vegetables and you don’t need all the commercial equipment to do it. It’s being done. The majority of the veterans that I deal with – they’re wanting to do the organic farming.”
Following a Board of Education meeting on June 30, Helmick said the VWAP could help build the state’s agricultural workforce.
“We’d like to expand the program statewide because we’re trying to build a labor force, which we don’t have in West Virginia,” said Helmick. “We’re trying to build from the ground up. We feel that those people have been disciplined, that those people that have been in the military are very constructive. We feel good about it and we feel we’ve got the right person in James working it. He’s a good employee.”
McCormick said veterans are trained to work together, a trait he’s seen demonstrated since launching the VWAP.
“We’ve got veterans going to each other’s houses when one of them gets sick,” he said. “We take care of their bees for them and do a lot of stuff for each other. We help each other put the crops in and help do the weeding. Vets are connecting and helping each other out on these projects.”
McCormick urged meeting attendees to tell other veterans about the program. Interested veterans can call 304-558-3200 for more information and to request a program application.