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Florida nonprofit helps veterans into the agriculture industry

Army veteran Sara Ferrera of Brandon completed the program and scored a farm job in the process.
U.S. Army veteran Sara Ferrera, 29, of Brandon, puts on gloves to protect herself while she spraying chemicals on farm fields at University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research And Education Center in Wimauma, on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.
U.S. Army veteran Sara Ferrera, 29, of Brandon, puts on gloves to protect herself while she spraying chemicals on farm fields at University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research And Education Center in Wimauma, on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 23, 2020

Sara Ferrera needed something new. Back in the Army, she worked as an analyst in an office. After leaving active duty, and later the Reserves, she then quit her civilian job to pursue a college degree.

When that didn’t pan out, she stumbled across the Veterans Florida Agriculture Program.

A pilot program that began in 2018 through the nonprofit Veterans Florida, the six-month paid fellowship offers veterans with no prior knowledge hands-on experience in agriculture. Veterans Florida partners with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences on the program. After the fellowship, it helps participants find jobs in the agriculture industry, said Joe Marino, executive director of the nonprofit.

Ferrera interned at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma at the beginning of the year and now works with the center’s farm crew.

“It stuck, and it really pulled me out of a pretty dark area,” she said.

Participants are exposed to different areas of agriculture to see what they might like, said Jack Rechcigl, director of the center.

U.S. Army veteran Sara Ferrera, 29, operates a sprayer tractor for the first time to kill tomato plants on a field at University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research And Education Center in Wimauma, on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.
U.S. Army veteran Sara Ferrera, 29, operates a sprayer tractor for the first time to kill tomato plants on a field at University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research And Education Center in Wimauma, on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Ferrera learned everything from how to identify and treat weeds to how to determine how much of a crop plot has a certain disease. It was all learn as you go, she said.

As part of the farm crew, she handles maintenance at the center where she continues to learn new skills, such as how to operate the tractors.

“To me, it’s therapy,” she said. “I love feeling my hands in the dirt and feeling that connection.”

This fall, Veterans Florida received a $745,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to place 30 veterans into agricultural careers over the next three years, working with UF facilities across the state.

“We’re training the next generation of agricultural leaders,” Marino said.

Veterans Florida’s ultimate goal, to offer career services to veterans and transitioning service members, also includes an entrepreneurship program. Ferrera completed that, as well.

The program recently announced agreements with four co-working spaces, including Rising Tide Innovation Center in St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay Wave in Tampa. It trains veterans eager to start their own businesses.

Ferrera has coupled the skills she’s learned from the two programs to start an urban farm in her Brandon backyard. Floaty’s Farm is where she tends to chickens and microgreens and hopes to build up a business.

Since 2016, entrepreneurship program participants have opened 277 businesses, generated $59.6 million in revenue and hired 392 employees, according to the nonprofit.

And with the expanded agriculture program, Marino hopes to open more pathways for veterans seeking career opportunities.

“A lot of veterans probably would have never thought about agriculture,” he said. “But once they’re exposed to the idea of it, and then getting into the training program, they really fall in love with it.”

Ferrera encourages fellow veterans to give the program a try.

“I feel excited and proud that I’ve been able to make such a change, especially within the last year,” she said. “It gives me a mission to keep going.”