Shepherd University has entered into a $600,000, five-year cost-sharing agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to provide opportunities for veterans to become agricultural entrepreneurs. The funding will develop conservation systems on the university-owned Tabler Farm, which sits northwest of West Campus, and assist with the development of a new program aimed at training veteran and civilian students to be farmers.
“NRCS is excited to add Shepherd University to a growing list of partners committed to assisting veterans and other students in West Virginia who are interested in a career in agriculture,” said Louis Aspey, the NRCS state conservationist. “The further development and use of Shepherd University’s 154-acre farm will help preserve this land for agricultural use, provide a variety of educational opportunities, help increase local food production, and stimulate economic growth in the state.”
The funding will help cover the cost of installing seasonal high tunnel greenhouses that will extend the growing season, purchasing equipment such as tillers and other implements, and setting up water and electricity. It will also help pay for public outreach and cover the salary for Haroun Hallack, a local organic farmer who will serve as part-time farm manager instructing and overseeing student projects.
“This is bringing new opportunity to the state and bringing training programs for people interested in small-scale farming and small-scale organic agriculture,” Hallack said. “It’s economically good for the state, the university, and the community.”
Shepherd’s Institute of Environmental and Physical Sciences is partnering with the College of Business to offer both production and business classes. The production component will focus on the practical aspects of small-scale farming. The business component will cover topics such as marketing, accounting, and developing business plans.
“The business classes included here will help students plan and evaluate their operations,” said Dr. Ben Martz, dean of the College of Business. “In the end, these courses will provide a leg up to students when looking at the overall feasibility of their farming operations.”
Shepherd’s Regents Bachelor of Arts degree program will offer two emphasis areas, one in agricultural entrepreneurship and another in sustainable food production. There will be a sustainable food production concentration in the traditional environmental studies program and one-year certificate programs in sustainable food production and in agricultural entrepreneurship.
“We’re going to showcase and teach a variety of sustainable agricultural practices for various vegetable crops,” said Dr. Peter Vila, director of the program and associate professor of environmental and physical sciences. “The program will focus on training students to apply organic and sustainable production practices that are suitable for small-scale users.”
Vila said the program will use a hands-on approach to provide students with the skills necessary to embark on new career paths in agriculture. The grant will also help Shepherd promote a newly formed partnership with the West Virginia National Guard Patriot Guardens program to offer vets-to-agriculture training in the Eastern Panhandle.
“Patriot Guardens already has extensive working relationships with two other universities, and this new arrangement with Shepherd will provide veterans and military personnel in the Eastern Panhandle region with training and educational opportunities in farming, agri-businesses, and ultimately agri-therapy opportunities,” said Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, the adjutant general for the West Virginia National Guard.
While the agriculture courses offered at Shepherd are open to any student, Vila said the university is particularly excited about being able to offer training that will benefit area veterans.
“Shepherd University has a strong program to support veterans,” Vila said. “This program will build on existing support systems and offer exciting new opportunities for veterans in the field of agriculture.”
“I am extremely proud of this unique public-private partnership that offers innovative training for the next generation of agricultural specialists addressing critical issues in the sustainable food industry,” said President Mary J.C. Hendrix.