Agritherapy offers veterans career training and a piece of mind

Kaylah Jackson
August 06, 2018 - 3:00 pm

Photo courtesy of Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture

From leading teams in Desert Shield to working as a liaison for the National Security Agency, Kent Leonhardt had his fair share of adventures during his 20-year career in the Marine Corps, but after retiring, he was eager to get back to the farmlands. 

He was first introduced to agriculture as a child when his parents bought an abandoned farm and took him to fairs and festivals but he always knew he wanted to own land for himself. Today, he and his wife have refurbished an abandoned farm in West Virginia from its original 205 acres to 380 acres, while raising sheep, cattle, and goats. Now, other veterans in West Virginia will have the tools to do the same.

Leonhardt’s story is like many veteran farmers. Agriculture is more than just a pastime. For service members who might be returning to rural towns or who want a career change, it can be extremely life changing.

“We know it’s healing, we know it helps and we know it’s a business. And it’s a business veterans can get involved in,” says Leonhardt, who is now West Virginia’s Commissioner for the Department of Agriculture.

While in office, Leonhardt was able to revive Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture, a program that introduces the agriculture business to transitioning veterans. Previously it hadn't received much attention or funding from the state. Leonhardt was able to increase both, leading to the state granting the department with more financial support. 

"Some people think farming is about tractors and a thousand acres, that couldn't be any further from the truth," says James McCormick, director of Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture. 

The goal is to help service members transition from the battlefield to fieldwork. Whether a veteran has years of agribusiness experience or none, the organization will help the veteran receive the mentorship they need to be successful. For veterans who might return home and want a change of pace or spend their time away from large crowds, farming can be an ideal career.

The program offers veterans the space to redirect any physical and mental health troubles they are experiencing through the act of farming and learning how the agricultural business works.

Not stopping there West Virginia is rolling out another program to attract veterans to agriculture. They've received a $400,000 grant to fund an agritherapy program in partnership with the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington, West Virginia. This new pilot program, which is designed for patients of the VA is eight weeks long and focuses on various aspects of agriculture.

“Beekeeping is very popular among the veterans. Beekeeping is very calming and it doesn’t take a lot of capital. You can do it as a part-time job even,” says Leonhardt.

Those involved in the program are also looking at orchards and Christmas tree farming opportunities. 

Agriculture also allows veterans to continue serving. Leonhardt mentions that so much of our food supply comes from overseas. Learning this trade allows veterans to keep contributing to the nation by creating and sustaining a safe food supply for their local and national communities.

“We want to be able to expose them to various aspects of agriculture and help them achieve some goals,” said Leonhardt. He hopes this transformative opportunity will become the standard and example for other VA medical centers to replicate across the U.S.

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