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Sara Ferrera in the field

Program gives veterans opportunity to explore agribusiness

The Veterans Florida Agriculture Program (VFAP) for military veterans at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) began in 2016 as a partnership with the Hillsborough County Economic Development and Professor Gary Vallad.

The program is a nine-month paid internship program that exposes selected veterans to various modern agriculture production practices, according to Veterans Florida which began managing the project which has now spread statewide.

We caught up with program participant Sara Ferrera to ask how things were going.

Can you tell us a little about your role in the military?

On active duty, I was an Army Intelligence Analyst stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas and after a few years, transitioned to the Army Reserves until I left in 2018. In 2015, I moved to Florida and continued intelligence analysis on a contractual basis until 2019. I ultimately decided that I was no longer interested in a corporate setting, and found my passions lied outside of an office and in my garden.

What interested you about the veterans program?

Sara Ferrera holds a duck

Submitted photo from Sara Ferrera

I heard a segment on the evening news about a program that helped teach veterans about farming and the future of agriculture, and I froze. Without a beat, my husband looked over and said “you need to sign up for that.” I’ve always loved the outdoors and spent a lot of time as a child in nature as it often brought me peace. There was a farm nearby, where I always enjoyed watching farmers work the earth to feed families, and I felt a connection to it.

What has your experience been like so far? What have you learned?

My experience has been rewarding. I spent the first few weeks with the Weed Science lab, working alongside an amazing team, Laura, Betty, Julia, and Mike. Dr. Boyd and his team taught me how to identify different weeds, measuring their impact on crops, and learned that even weeds need love, too. Then, I went to Nematology (Dr. Desaeger) where I learned what nematodes are, how to identify them, and different signs to look for to determine if you have them. When COVID-19 shutdown happened, my internship was impacted; however, I was able to transition to Plant Pathology (Dr. Vallad). During this time, I worked with Becky, who taught me how to identify various diseases and determine what percentage of an overall plot was infected. Currently, I work with the Farm Crew. They have taught me how to operate tractors, lay and remove plastic, tie tomatoes, change filters, and fix broken water lines. They’ve encouraged me to take what I’m learning into my personal life and learn more about urban farming techniques to one day run my own farm.

What do you hope to do after the program ends?

I hope to stay on the farm crew. I have learned so much, and I want to grow and continue to work on the skills I have gained. I want to become a farm manager, and eventually own a farm as a nonprofit to help Veterans the same way this program has helped me.

To learn more about the program, visit https://www.veteransflorida.org/