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Nonprofit connects veterans to farming apprenticeships

Mimi Thomas-Brooker is a master connector.

Through online searches, phone calls, word-of-mouth and a lot of grit, she coordinates farming apprenticeships for veterans seeking a second career.

In 2016, she founded the nonprofit Troops to Tractors to organize what she had been doing throughout her career both as a military spouse and a civilian – connecting people to people, and people to resources.

Thomas-Brooker has allies all over the state, farmers ready to share their expertise with a veteran for a year or so, while gaining a dependable employee in return. And veterans who may have little experience with commercial farming are paid to learn while they work side-by-side with a farmer.

“What the farmer gets is a mature, dependable, skilled employee who has some life experience, who is ready to accomplish the mission in taking direction from the mentor. Meanwhile the veteran is getting the opportunity to learn without having to get a degree,” said Thomas-Brooker, who has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, both in music education, from East Carolina University.

Troops to Tractors operates under the umbrella of PA Veterans Farming Project, a nonprofit founded at the same time as the program. Sponsored by the Westmoreland County Conservation District, the project connects veterans and their spouses with marketing resources, on-the-job training and funding opportunities for their farming operations.

Veterans can tap the GI Bill to get credit for the apprenticeships through a process managed by the state Department of Education, where state workers talk to interested farmers to come up with an educational program, including details like what the veteran will learn and how long it will take. They also visit the farm and make sure there is an educational benefit for the veteran and not just menial labor.

“They determine they’ll spend this much time on animal husbandry, this much time on business skills, this much time on personnel management and fiscal operation,” Thomas-Brooker said. “It’s very specific, and yet they’re skills you’d need in any agribusiness. That’s what we look for in a farmer – someone to teach them how to run their own business.”

So far, six farms in Pennsylvania are approved to employ a veteran in the Troops to Tractors program, and one currently is hosting a veteran. Five veterans either completed or are in some stage of completing the program.

But veterans must do their due diligence before committing to an apprenticeship program, especially if they have no experience with farming.

“We ask them, ‘Have you talked to any farmers at a farmer’s market?’ We encourage them to explore and volunteer on a farm,” Thomas-Brooker said.

Mimi Thomas-Brooker founded the Troops to Tractors program, which connects veterans to farming apprenticeships, in 2016. (Submitted)

It’s important for aspiring farmers to explore different types of farming to determine their focus in an apprenticeship, which usually lasts between 12 and 18 months, Thomas-Brooker said.

Even among the approved Troops to Tractors farms, there are various types of farming represented. The Miller Plant Farm in Spring Garden Township, York County produces vegetables, flowers and produce for gardeners and commercial farmers. An equine farm called Woerth it Hallow in Colerain Township, Lancaster County, rescues horses that would have been slaughtered. Veterans and people with disabilities can visit and work there for therapeutic reasons.

Forever Heart Farm LLC, in Bradford County, focuses on raising heritage breeds, or traditional livestock breeds that were kept by America’s forefathers but have since declined as a result of industrial farming. Forever Heart Farm is currently in talks with the Department of Education to become a host farm for veterans participating in Troops to Tractors.

At the end of an apprenticeship, veterans can choose to either continue working on the farm, or branch out to start their own operations. In order to take part, host farms must have adequate resources to hire in and pay the apprentice a stipend.

Throughout her time as a military spouse, Thomas-Brooker worked for the Marine Corps’ Family Readiness Program, where she assisted with community services like parent support, education and communication, with the goal of keeping military families healthy and happy so that the enlisted spouses and parents could focus on their jobs.

After her husband, Michael, retired from the Marines about 10 years ago, the couple moved to Greensburg, Westmoreland County where he accepted a job to work with disabled veterans, while Thomas-Brooker took a job with the Westmoreland Conservation District.

“We looked at doing something with veteran farming,” she said. But the ball didn’t start rolling right away.

She eventually took a job with the Westmoreland County Department of Human Services, where she currently works as communications director. She started the PA Veterans Farming Project in 2016 after receiving some grant money from her former employer, the conservation district.

Since then, the organization has been buoyed by grants from the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, some chapters of the Disabled American Veterans and donations from private supporters. It has no full-time employees but has a three-person volunteer advisory board.

“Mimi has helped us tremendously with making contacts across the ag industry and with veterans. What she gets done in the time she’s allocated is impressive. She’s an incredible woman,” said Robert Mowery III, founder of Forever Heart Farm.

The willingness in the ag community to help one another is at the heart of Troops to Tractors.

“The ag community is tight knit,” Thomas-Brooker said. “They’re all supportive of each other. One farmer says, ‘you should trust this guy.’ Another says, ‘I’m looking out for you, let’s find you a good position.’ It’s not unlike the military.”

Mariah Chuprinski
Mariah Chuprinski is the special projects editor at CPBJ. Email her at mchuprinski@cpbj.com.

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