CHARLESTON - A recently approved state agricultural program for military veterans is off to a strong start.
James McCormick, director of the Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture program, said work on the program began in December but wasn't approved by the state Legislature until earlier this year. Even so, interest in the program and participation in classes offered has seen a steady increase.
"We've already got 53 veterans that are enrolled and in some stage of completion," he said.
Veterans attend a beekeeping class in Mason County as part of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture program.
The program, which gives veterans access to classes and training in areas of beekeeping and agriculture, was approved only months ago by the state Legislature, but McCormick said officials started moving on the project in December of last year.
"We've seen phenomenal growth," he said.
McCormick teaches beekeeping at a farm in Mason County, and said many vets sign up for the course as an introduction to farming. About 42 of the 53 veterans enrolled are part of the beekeeping program, he said.
One of those veterans is Roy Ramey of Lesage, W.Va. Ramey raises chicken and pigs as well as grows berries and some vegetables at Avalon Farms in Cabell County.
Though he has been farming for six years, Ramey said he joined the Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture program to introduce beekeeping on his farm.
"We wanted to add honey bees for pollination and honey," he said. "This was just a great opportunity."
Ramey, who served in the United States Army for 26 years and recently transferred to the Army Reserves, said he has quickly become a proponent of the Veterans to Agriculture program.
"I often say if you can't get a job or a good paying job, you might as well work for yourself," he said. "People just need the opportunity."
Walt Helmick, commissioner of agriculture for West Virginia, said that opportunity is a major part of the Veterans to Agriculture program.
"A lot of the program structure will revolve around training veterans, and the training program will encompass every part of the agriculture business, not just the planting and growing," Helmick said. "Our program centers around the possibility of helping vets transition into gainful employment."
"That will not only help them, but it helps the state of West Virginia in developing a labor force. A lot of agriculture is individual entrepreneurship and that is what we are wanting to teach."
"We've increased the bee population in West Virginia, we've increased interest in agriculture and some of these people are going to be serious farmers," McCormick said. "We're teaching them a lifestyle here. We're trying to teach them to be self-sufficient and to keep them busy and occupied in a positive way."
The program also helps former soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Often those who have served in battle conditions find it difficult to sleep, react poorly in stressful situations and find themselves suffering from severe depression.
McCormick, a three-time combat veteran who was wounded in Iraq, said the simple act of tending a garden can reduce those symptoms and can help veterans focus their attention and skills on something positive.
"When I came back I struggled for a long time," he said. Getting into agriculture "helped a lot, and what really helps me now is that I can help other people."
Ramey said while he has not personally dealt with PTSD, he has seen neighbors and friends helped with their own issues through farming.
"It takes their minds off of their problems," he said. "I've seen the emotional benefit they get from this."
McCormick said officials are trying to expand what the program can offer by partnering with other groups, such as colleges, the state National Guard and other organizations. Officials also want to create a co-op program, which would provide resources and assistance for veteran farmers.
"Most co-ops exist just to offer crop insurance, marketing assistance, maybe a label for produce," he said. "We want to take it a little deeper. We want it to involve some training assistance. If they get mobilized and deployed and they are in the middle of a planting or harvesting season, we'd be able to help that person out so they don't lose their crop for that year."
The program's Facebook page already has more than 800 likes, and McCormick said more than 100 veterans are registered to participate in the program.
"We've got more people interested than we can get in," he said.
One of the major hurdles for the program, however, is money.
"We got the legislation passed, but we've got no other funding," McCormick said. "We just don't have the funding."
Helmick said while he is thrilled with the program's rapid growth, the next step will be to monitor the program before looking at funding possibilities.
"We don't want to establish an entity that would require a whole lot of money before we know exactly what we are doing. This is a first for this state," he said. "We think there are a number of agriculture opportunities where we can involve a significant number of veterans. We need to monitor the program and try to evaluate it in such a manner that we will know where we need to be with the program next year. Then we need to look at expanding and what resources we need to do so."