SAVE Farm helps veterans transition into agriculture

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Virgil Williams, Melissa Wahl, Students: Jennifer and Joseph Graham with their son Alex, and Lucinda Stuenkel. (Benjamin Voller | Collegian Media Group)

Located near Riley, Kansas, the SAVE Farm, which stands for Servicemember Agriculture Vocation Education, is a six-month program tailored to help veterans transition into farming.

Tod Bunting, Chairman of the Board and CEO of the SAVE Farm, said the program would help people pursue their goals in agriculture.

“Depending on their interest and ability, they can have a small farm operation on a couple acres, or they can learn enough about the entire spectrum of farming that they can ultimately go to work on a farm with the goal someday of being their own farm,” Bunting said.

(Benjamin Voller | Collegian Media Group)
(Benjamin Voller | Collegian Media Group)

Bunting said the program keeps students busy because it only lasts six months.

“Coming out here, it’s very intense,” Bunting said. “You’re going to work hard, but it’s going to be a great life experience and will prepare you for a lot of stuff.”

Bunting said while the program focuses on veterans, it is open to anyone interested in agriculture.

Scholarships are available to help cover part of the tuition of $7,500, and the farm is working towards becoming eligible to accept veteran students’ GI Bill benefits.

“The student will probably have to contribute some, but as a fairly new program, we do have some good scholarships available at this time,” Bunting said.

Melissa Wahl is an instructor at the SAVE Farm and said the program helps veterans in more ways than just learning about farming.

“Besides answering some of those questions they may not know about agriculture, I think it’s also a healing process,” Wahl said.

Lucinda Stuenkel, another instructor with the program, said she could see when students are starting to heal in the program.

“When students first come, I can just tell that they are just not wanting to connect, and the self-esteem seems to be at a marginal level,” Stuenkel said. “By about the second week that they’re here, I can see they’re starting to gain confidence. … By the fourth week, the confidence is there, and their eyes are starting to shine.”

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Stuenkel said students have told her they want to make a difference after their military careers are over.

“Most of them tell me, ‘Well, I’ve been in the military and had to kill things for a number of years, and now I want to nurture something. So now I want to help something grow, I want to help take care of livestock, I want to make good things happen,'” Stuenkel said.

Bunting said since the farm practices sustainable agriculture, it helps farmers in their lives outside of farming.

“Doing this in the sustainable side makes it more possible for farmers themselves to sustain being a farmer because they’re making the maximum use of their resources,” Bunting said. “Sustainable to us applies both to the farmer themselves and being able to sustain operations.”

Virgil Williams, operations manager at the SAVE Farm, said the program teaches students more than just farming.

“This is a place where you come to learn,” Williams said. “You can come here to learn about ag, but you’re going to learn more than just about ag. You’re going to learn about life.”

Jennifer and Joseph Graham are a married couple going through the program together. Joseph Graham said he enjoys the advantages of completing the course together.

“I think it’s really good because we’re learning this together, and we both have the same passion,” Graham said. “For both of us to be on the same page and have the same vision and the same training really helps each other and should benefit us in the future.”

(Benjamin Voller | Collegian Media Group)
(Benjamin Voller | Collegian Media Group)

He said the program would set him and Jennifer up for success going forward.

“We have some great connections and teachers, and lifelong resources and a support system that we can rely on if we need anything,” Joseph said. “We’ve already had a couple job offers, and we’re not even through the program yet. So, there’s a lot of different opportunities for us.”

Jennifer Graham said going through the program would be beneficial even if someone is uncertain if farming is for them.

“It’s stuff that everyone should know,” she said. “I think that knowing where your food comes from and the process involved is important.”

Stuenkel said the SAVE Farm’s unique position lets instructors teach students about that process.

“The great thing about having the farm available is we can do a little bit of education in the classroom and then going out and doing it,” Stuenkel said. “You’re not separating actually doing it from the information that you share.”

Wahl said the program is a positive experience for everyone involved.

“I feel like we walk away with more knowledge as instructors just because of the diversity we’ve had through our classes,” Wahl said. “They’ve come in as students, and we’ve grown as friends.”

More information about the SAVE Farm is on its website at thesavefarm.org.

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