Turning American Veterans Into American Farmers

“Farming is a surprisingly social yet isolated profession. You can spend an entire day talking to a group about subjects or experiences that you would only share with people you are close to. You can also find yourself working alone for an entire day on a tractor, which gives you time to work through issues in your life. Both of these things I find therapeutic in farming,” said Michael Sandoval, a former Marine corporal and current Assistant Manager at Hawthorne Valley Farm.

Michael is a graduate of Heroic Food, a non-profit organization whose mission is to prepare and train military veterans for careers in sustainable farming, agricultural trades, and food entrepreneurship in a veteran-supportive environment. “Farmer training can help returning veterans make the transition to civilian life, heal from trauma, and prepare for careers in a sector that badly needs them. There is service, duty and sacrifice in farming,” said Leora Barish, Founder & Executive Director of Heroic Food.


Leora Barish’s father was a career Army chaplain who was disabled in Korea. When his sight began to fail, he retired to Arizona. “Dad’s home was surrounded by orange groves, and he found this very restorative. One day he planted his own orange tree and by the time he turned 100 years old, he had an entire grove,” said Leora. Leora wanted to honor her father’s memory by doing something to help veterans. Her passion for food justice and sustainability along with her concerns for the ill-served veterans and endangered small farms spawned the idea of a residential farm-training program designed only for veterans. Leora reached out to the Farmer Veteran Coalition and the Hawthorne Valley Farm Learning Center for help, and soon Heroic Food was born! “Veterans have many sensitivities, but they also have incredible gifts of character and strong moral compasses,” said Leora.

A Win/Win

Men and women returning from military service suffer a high incidence of unemployment, depression, PTSD, and lowered self-esteem. Heroic Food was conceived to help veterans address the challenges of transition, while also helping the nation address its growing need for new farmers and the demand for locally, sustainably grown food. “There is a farmer crisis in America. The median age of a small farmer is around 68, and there are not enough new farmers coming in,” said Leora. “Farmer training can help returning veterans make the transition to civilian life, heal from trauma, and prepare for careers in a sector that badly needs them.”

Immersion Training Program

The Heroic Food’s Immersion Training Program is designed for veterans with a strong, committed interest in sustainable farming for small scale, commercial, direct marketing, and homestead operations. The yearlong Immersion Program takes up to 4 farm trainees each year and places them on multiple sites in Columbia, Dutchess, and surrounding counties. Trainees gain hands-on experience through apprenticeships with local mentor farmers, craftspeople, and food entrepreneurs. In addition, the program offers workshops, short-courses and individualized support for life and career transitions.

The Training Program curriculum was developed in consultation with the Hawthorne Valley Learning Center, the Cornell Small Farms Program, and the Farmer Veteran Coalition. The principles and practices of sustainable farming are at the core of this program. Workshops are varied and include farm business management, tractor maintenance, food preparation, and green building practices. Heroic Food graduates have a broad skill base that helps them to lower their business costs, earn extra income, and explore new markets.

8-month On-farm Mentorship

(April – November)

The Heroic Food Mentorship program matches Trainees with experienced farmer-mentors who provide paid apprenticeships or farm crew positions. Mentor farms vary in size, enterprises, and production philosophies, and the staff works to match each Trainee with a farm that best suits his or her interests and goals. Trainees work typical farm hours, according to the weekly schedule set by the farmers. In most cases, Trainees will be placed on farms in teams of two, allowing for mutual support through the day’s work and learning.

In order to track the learning process, each Trainee completes an individualized Skills Checklist. Trainees review their checklists periodically with their mentor farmers and the Veteran Coordinator to ensure that their learning goals are being met, and that they master the skills required prior to graduating from the program. Trainees also keep a Notebook during the on-farm training, recording observations of weather and farm conditions as well as daily work completed on the farm. This serves as a valuable record of time spent on the farm to refer to in future years, and helps Trainees build observation skills. In regular meetings with Trainees, mentor farmers and the Veteran Coordinator review the journals and make suggestions for their improvement.