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Decorated soldier starts veterans agri-business program

A group of veterans in Mason County work together to build a support for bee hives during a Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture project. The VWAP seeks to help veterans get started in agriculture-based businesses. With program support, many veterans have started businesses in honey production. Photo courtesy VWAP.

A new West Virginia Department of Agriculture program is helping veterans begin careers and businesses in agriculture. The program was conceived by a decorated Army combat vet from Apple Grove.

Military veterans often have difficulty transitioning to a civilian occupation after they complete their time in uniform. The difficulty is due to several factors. By serving in the military, veterans have delayed the start of specialized training in the civilian sector. This often places them at a disadvantage to their non-veteran counterparts, who have received training and already made progress in a civilian occupation. For many veterans, mental and physical wounds from their combat experiences add to the difficulty of starting a civilian career.

James McCormick grew up on a small farm in Putnam County. He joined the Army in 1985 and served in infantry, air defense, and transportation units during a 22-year career. McCormick completed three combat tours and was wounded three times, earning three Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars. After his promotion to Captain, McCormick volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan. But the Army told McCormick he had had enough combat, and medically retired him in 2009.

McCormick wasn’t sure what to do after he departed the service. But he remembered his happy days as a farm boy and decided it would do him good to start his own farm. He bought 15 acres in Apple Grove, in Mason County, and started growing bamboo.

With a strong desire to help other veterans, McCormick got a job with the state as a disabled veterans outreach program specialist. Working above and beyond his job description, he shuttled homeless veterans from shelters to his farm to give them hands-on experience in farm work.

In 2012, McCormick met with then State Senator Walt Helmick, who was running for Commissioner of Agriculture, and told the candidate about his ideas for a program to help veterans get started in agriculture. After his election, Commissioner Helmick helped McCormick start the Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture Program (VWAP). The retired Army officer is now the contract program director. The Legislature provided $275,000 for the program this year.

In recognition of his work to help veterans, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society presented McCormick with the Citizens Service Award in 2012, awarded to just three civilians every year.

The new program director said VWAP offers four principal benefits to veterans: training, equipment, land and therapy.

“We assist veterans with training in any aspect of agriculture,” he said. “We sit down with the veteran and find out what they want to do or what their interests are. A lot of them come in and say, ‘I’d like to raise cattle’ or ‘I’d like to raise a five-acre garden.’ We put them with other veterans or take them out to one of our state farms, where we’ve got projects going. They’ll spend the whole day with us and it doesn’t take long to figure out if this is really what they want to do. Some of them change their minds.”

McCormick said many vets have started beekeeping businesses.

“One of the biggest things we’ve had success with is beekeeping,” he said. “I was swamped with people wanting to go into beekeeping. It started with six and after two months, after people started hearing about it, I was up to 40 veterans all across the state.”

VWAP coordinates training for veterans in beekeeping and honey production. The program can obtain two beehives and equipment for veterans at no cost, with money from a state veterans re-education fund. Veterans must purchase bees, but the VWAP has obtained steeply discounted prices. The West Virginia Beekeepers Association and private beekeepers have strongly supported the VWAP apiary project.

“A lot of them have kicked in and said, ‘we’ll buy a set of bees for these guys,’” said McCormick.

Many commercial gardeners never get started because of a lack of land. The VWAP program allows land owned by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to be farmed by veterans.

“If they need land, they can contact the Department of Agriculture,” said McCormick. “We go out and try to secure them property at a veterans leased rate. The legislation set it up this year so that we can take any of our property – and there’s a bunch of it down there in Pocahontas County. We can take an acre – an acre is a pretty big undertaking for one person. We can give them an acre for about $100 a year, probably a little less. What comes with that is that we go out and plow that field for them and get it ready. Then they put in their seeds or plants and weed and harvest. We help them by taking away the need to go out and buy a tractor.”

The VWAP also helps veterans obtain and build greenhouses.

McCormick said the primary purpose of the VWAP is small business generation

“The vision for the future of this program is we want agri-business owners,” he said. “We’re looking to develop businesses in West Virginia. Walt Helmick has said it many times – if we’ve got $7.5 billion being spent on food in West Virginia and less than half-a-billion’s being spent on food produced here in the state, we’ve got a lot of opportunity.”

Finally, the VWAP program provides an outlet and money-making opportunity for disabled vets.

“We also work with veterans who have disabilities,” said McCormick. “There are a lot of veterans out there who just do this as a form of therapy. We accept them into the program and a lot of them are growing backyard gardens. We also teach them how to can what they’ve grown. So, we’re trying to build in a little self-sustainability and a little more independent living – growing their own food. Once they do that, we hope they scratch out an extra plot of land and maybe start selling at a local farmers market.”

McCormick said the Department of Agriculture has a cap of $1.5 million on money it receives from leasing its own land. Any money the department receives over the cap goes into the state’s general fund. McCormick and Helmick are working to raise the cap and allow the additional money to fund the VWAP.

Veterans interested in participating in the VWAP should call the Department of Agriculture at 304-558-3550 and request an application and information packet.

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