11aWhitaker Small Farm Group, Inc. is seeking veterans and their dependants interested in learning how to grow and maintain edible and inedible plants.

The 18-month program aims to help soldiers transition from the military world to a lush environment of green lawns, healthy gardens, thriving houseplants and tasty produce.
Initiated in the fall of 2021 by Charles Whitaker, President and C.E.O. of Whitaker Small Farm Group, Inc, the Veteran Farming Program offers military personnel and their spouses an opportunity to learn a new trade, subsidize their income and grow a healthy respect for the care and maintenance of their yards.

WSFG, Inc., which has historically invested its time and resources in supporting emerging farmers and those socially disadvantaged, developed this program — their first aimed specifically at veterans — as a step toward creating opportunities otherwise unavailable to this population.

Whitaker, who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for more than 30 years, knows the value of being able to work the land and is committed to creating no-cost access to the skills that enrich lives and grow communities.

"Many times veterans exit the military, and they aren't quite sure as to what they'll do with their futures," Whitaker shared. "This project offers them another window to look through."

Up & Coming Weekly also spoke with Nancy Olsen, Air Force veteran and chief instructor of the program, about the desired outcomes for the project and the importance of horticulture.

Horticulture, an aspect of agriculture, involves the small-scale maintenance and production of both edible and inedible plants. It can cover the cucumbers that just won’t grow in the backyard or the Peace Lily that refuses to thrive. Horticulture, as a practice, can be a relaxing way to pass the time, or integral to putting food on the table.

“This kind of program is important for anyone with a yard or even a houseplant,” she said. “I teach people how to grow different types of plants and how to make them grow correctly to the best of the plant's ability.”
Raised on a 4000-acre farm-ranch in Kansas, Olsen has farming and horticulture in her blood. Her father, a farmer, and her mother, a homemaker, taught her how to treat the earth with respect and patience in order to reap the benefits of its bounty.11

“I guess growing up on a farm, I found a love for the land at a young age,” she shared. “When I was just a kid, I had a huge garden, and that was my first job. My mother would buy me all the seeds, use what she needed to feed the family, and I got to sell everything else. I was maybe nine or ten, and I’d haul my wagon and sell whatever was growing to the little ladies in town.”

The pride that comes from being able to grow food to eat or food to sell is a feeling Olsen hopes to offer those who participate in the program. Though she left that Kansas ranch long ago, the lessons learned there have fueled a life-long passion and a career. Olsen, who has both a bachelor's and a master's degree in horticulture, has shared her knowledge and experience with students at North Carolina State University and Sampson Community College. She has a great deal more knowledge to share.

The grant-funded Veteran Farming Program is free for participants; still, it offers valuable information, hands-on experience, and useful tips from an industry insider. Even for those not interested or unsure about their fitness for farming, the program also exists for those who just want a nicer lawn — a cause for which Olsen is in full support.

“To me, everyone should have a nice yard,” she offered. “It’s just something nice to go out and enjoy. Most people abuse their yards and land — I want people to appreciate and work at having nice plants around their houses. I want to share how to get the most out of their yard, no matter how much or how little they have.”

While “Best Yard on the Block” is a noble pursuit, the project does offer other incentives for those a bit more serious about a life or career in horticulture. The program is split into three six-month sessions, with six monthly class meetings. Each class typically lasts around four hours and focuses on agricultural technology, theory and food production.
Participants are given a travel allowance to get to and from training and a small amount for expenses. Additionally, students can use the skills and knowledge gained toward work-experience credit when applying for an F.S.A. (Farm Service Agency) loan.

For V. Williams and his wife, the program has been invaluable, particularly during this time of continued inflation which has seen over a 10% increase in produce in the past year. With a garden full of collards, eggplants, tomatoes, and other tasty vegetables — he had nothing but good things to say about the program.

“I retired with disabilities, and I signed up for something to do to get out of the house,” he said. “I wanted to start growing my own vegetables instead of relying on the grocery store.”

“The class gives a lot of information about the plants themselves, and once you know the basics, it's easy. During this last growing season, we grew about $13,000 worth of produce. It can be hard work — but the confidence it gives you goes a long way.”

The program has already started for January, but Olsen hopes that won't be a deterrent for those interested in signing up. This month's meetings have focused on inoculating mushroom logs with mushroom spores, but — the more, the merrier.

“People are always welcome,” Olsen assured. “Just come on in, and we'll educate as we go.”

The program is free for military personnel, veterans, and military spouses.

For more information about the program and Whitaker Small Group Farms, Inc., visit www.whitakersmallfarmgroup.com/, email at c.l.w.whitaker@comcast.net or call 919-412-4132.

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