Michigan State University Pilots Veterans to Agriculture Program

posted on September 30, 2009 7:57am

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  517-355-0234HICKORY CORNERS, Mich.—Going back to school wasn’t exactly what Clinton Boyd, 46, had in mind. But when he was laid off from his 13-year welding job, the Army veteran decided that adding another skill to his tool belt might be a good idea.

  That’s when a veteran representative from Detroit told him about a pilot program through Michigan State University (MSU) and the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth (DELEG). The University and state office have teamed up to get a dozen veterans back to work.
  A pilot program, Vets to Ag, is a four-week residential training program at Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) in Hickory Corners, Mich. The program is designed for United States Veterans who are currently unemployed, some of whom were residing in homeless shelters in Detroit.
  “This program will give me a chance to develop more skills and by combining the two (agriculture and welding), I know I can work more. For me, working more means providing more for my three children,” Boyd said.
  Boyd is one of 12 veterans who will be recognized for completing the program at 10 a.m., Friday, Oct. 2 at KBS.
  Trainees will be specifically trained for work on a Christmas tree farm, but training will include a strong basic foundation in the plant and soil sciences,  equipment operation and general agricultural knowledge, all applicable to work in other agricultural commodities.
  “It is through programs like Vets to Ag where Michigan State University proves its ability to be flexible to meet the needs of the worker and the employer. It is truly the role of a land-grant institution to connect a workforce with employers who need them,” said Jeffrey Armstrong, dean, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
  Two-thirds of the program includes hands-on training, utilizing the land and equipment at KBS. Because the trainees will work alongside migrant workers, the training will include an understanding of migrant culture and training in conversational Spanish.
  Driven by demand of Michigan’s agriculture industry, specifically employers in the state’s Christmas tree industry, DELEG’s Bureau of Workforce Transformation also collaborated with South Central Michigan Works!, the Michigan Veterans Foundation in Detroit, the Detroit Workforce Development Department and the Volunteers of America in Lansing to identify eligible participants.
  “Vets to Ag gives the Institute of Agricultural Technology the opportunity to expose more students to Michigan State University,” said Eunice Foster,  director of the Institute for Agricultural Technology. “It is through programs like this that students become a highly educated workforce, which is exactly what Michigan needs.”
  Training is being coordinated by the Institute of Agricultural Technology,  housed in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at MSU. Program instructors include MSU faculty and staff in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources –  including the departments of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife, Crop and Soil Sciences; as well as the Institute   of Agricultural Technology staff, MSU Extension staff and industry experts, including Christmas tree farmers.
  Officials at DELEG are working with the state’s Christmas tree growers to hire the trainees to work in the field this season. In Cadillac, Dutchman Tree Farms, co-owned by Joel Hoekwater and Chris Maciborski, has agreed to hire several of the trainees.
  According to the Michigan Christmas Tree Association (MCTA), the state of Michigan ranks third in Christmas tree production in the United States, with an estimated farm gate of $42 million annually. Tree harvest is a very labor intensive process and involves many temporary workers.
  “We are encouraged to see these industrious men looking for work opportunities in agriculture,” said Marsha Gray, MCTA’s executive director. “Our member Christmas tree growers are intrigued by the training program and hope to provide work opportunities for these veterans.”
  The agricultural industry in Michigan has an economic value of close to $74 billion. Michigan has the second most diverse agricultural economy in the United States,  rivaled only by California.
  “We’re trying to do more than teach these men a task,” said Tom Smith,   associate director of the Institute of Agricultural Technology and program coordinator. “They will have the skills needed to compete for many jobs in the state’s agricultural industry.”

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