MADISON — After applying for a grant through the Veterans Affairs Office of Rural Health–Agricultural Training/Behavioral Healthcare Services, the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison has received word that they are one of 12 recipients of funds designed to create a training program for veterans who want to work in agriculture or food systems. The grant was awarded to the Madison VA hospital in July and will support the program for two fiscal years, with a plan to make it sustainable into the future if it sees success.

“With agriculture being an important industry to Wisconsin, we really do feel like this is a good fit for veterans in our state,” said Denise Chapin, Therapeutic and Supported Employment Services program manager at the Madison VA.

To Chapin, working in agriculture can be therapeutic and the connection to hard work is something veterans can relate to. It was easy for her and her colleagues to see how a training program specializing in agriculture could fit into the hospital’s mission of a whole health approach, understanding the needs of each veteran and tailoring a plan around those specific needs.

The agriculture training program has three areas of focus: formal training from the Madison VA’s Therapeutic and Supported Employment Services, with assistance from partners UW-Madison and Madison Area Technical College; training placements at local agricultural settings, such as farms, agribusinesses and other agricultural organizations; and the hospital system of support, integrating their whole health model of care. There is no upfront cost to veterans interested in enrolling, although they do have to be eligible to receive healthcare services at the Madison VA.

“It’s definitely something new for the VA,” Chapin said. “If it works well, it’s a way to bring veterans into the health care system through therapeutic work experience, reaching veterans that haven’t reached out to the hospital previously.”

The training program consists of two tracks veterans can choose from: a two-year certificate program through the UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course, in partnership with the UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems; and a one-year and one semester technical diploma program through Madison College. For veterans interested in the FISC program, the first year would cover general farm management, with the second year focused on one of six specialty areas, including crop and soil management, dairy farm management, diversified agricultural operations, farm and equipment operations, meat animal farm management and organic agriculture. At Madison College, veterans interested in a one-year and one semester semester program will participate in workshop training experiences with the option to pursue one of two programs: agricultural systems management and sustainable farm to table: modern meat production.

Many formal training sessions through the university and college are web-based, allowing for development around the needs of the veteran. However, part of the training program includes hands-on, on-farm experiences, with Chapin putting out a call for area farmers interested in serving as host sites for paid work experiences. Farmers interested do not need to be veterans themselves, but Chapin encouraged those who are veterans to especially reach out to her if they are interested.

Chapin is also seeking individuals interested in serving on an advisory council for the training program.

She is still looking for veterans interested in enrolling, with no stipulations for the veterans when it comes to agricultural experience. The program accepts veterans with no farming experience, those who are already farming or had farmed and want to get back into it and those who may want to move into other roles on a farm. She also sees the program exploring not only the production side of farming, but also the value-added side; for example, cheesemaking.

“We want to be as open to meet where the veteran is and fit what they need within our training,” Chapin said.

She and her colleagues have set a goal to have between three and eight veterans enrolled in the program in its first year, with a second goal to have 20 veterans enrolled in the second year. With such a specific program with specific requirements, it’s helpful to have a small group to start, but Chapin hopes that doesn’t deter interested veterans from enrolling.

Veterans interested in enrolling in the Madison VA agricultural training program should contact Denise Chapin at 608-256-1901 ext. 16431, or via email at denise.chapin@va.gov.