Through the new Veteran Agriculture Selection Program (VASP), the GCREC has a mission to “expose veterans to various modern crop production practices and helping them develop positive relationships and career opportunities within the Florida agriculture industry while they are enrolled in a University of Florida certificate program.”
Researchers at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) and Hillsborough County Agriculture Extension understand feeding a growing global population will require a 70 percent increase in food production by 2050. They also understand that military veterans have leadership training, skills and perspective that will help America meet the challenges of producing food and rebuilding rural and urban communities.
Through the new Veteran Agriculture Selection Program (VASP), the GCREC has a mission to “expose veterans to various modern crop production practices and helping them develop positive relationships and career opportunities within the Florida agriculture industry while they are enrolled in a University of Florida Certificate Program.”
One of Farm Credit of Central Florida’s 2017 Credit Analyst Interns, retired U.S. Air Force Major Michael Burrell, was the first participant of this unique program.
“The purpose of VASP is to help veterans transition into viable and rewarding careers in the agriculture industry,” said Burrell.
Burrell’s extensive military experience began as an aircraft mechanic in England and then continued as a surgical technician when he relocated back to the United States. While stationed in Illinois as an ear, nose and throat surgical technician, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in business administration from McKendree University.
“I was given the opportunity to enter Officer Training School after my time in Illinois and did so at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama,” said Burrell.
His tenure as an officer began as a finance manager, overseeing budgets over $1 billion. In 2005, Burrell earned his MBA from Trident University International.
When deployed to Iraq, Burrell worked as a Finance Operations Manager then moved on to serve as an executive officer at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia. Afterwards, he was deployed to Djibouti, Africa as Special Forces Director of Financial Operations at Camp Lemmonnier. His final stint in the Air Force was as an aircraft and weapons cost analyst with the Air Force Cost Analysis Agency in Maryland.
“After retiring from the Air Force in late 2013, I was enrolled at Johnson and Wales University in North Miami where I earned an associate’s degree in baking and pastry, hoping to one day open a classical French pastry shop,” said Burrell.
“I want to leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren, and farming is a sustainable way to do that,” explained Burrell. “I also chose farming because I do want to own my own farm-to-table restaurant and pastry shop, and in order to execute that I needed to learn how to farm.”
Burrell was chosen as the first candidate of Hillsborough County Extension’s Veteran Agriculture Selection Program in January 2017. Candidates of this program spend six to nine months being introduced to field preparation techniques and cutting-edge agricultural research through an internship with the GCREC.
Burrell’s interest in the program was sparked because he understood the utility farming provided.
“The first month, I worked mainly with the farm crew. I was plowing fields, fumigating, building beds and laying plastic,” said Burrell. “From there, I did work in the strawberry breeding and pathology labs then moved on to the nematology lab. As part of my hands-on internship, I was placed in the plant pathology lab.”
Burrell studied trials with downy and powdery mildew and common diseases affecting tomatoes, cucumbers and melons in the plant pathology lab. From there, he worked with urban landscaping through planting trees near Lake Crago in Lakeland.
Candidates can also enroll in a variety of University of Florida agricultural certificate programs of their choosing- many of which are offered online, allowing flexibility for courses to be completed on nights and weekends. In Burrell’s case, he received a Food Service Management certification during his time at Johnson and Wales.
The next step of the program is to secure a three month internship with a local farm or agribusiness. Simon Bollin, Hillsborough County Agribusiness Development Manager helps participants find their perfect fit.
“I sit down with candidates towards the end of their GCREC internship to determine where their interests lie,” said Bollin. “Hillsborough County Economic Development works with a variety of agricultural organizations to place VASP candidates in the best possible internship. Hopefully, that internship leads to a full-time position in the agriculture industry.”
With 11 years of financial experience, interning for Farm Credit just made sense to Burrell.
“Since I started with Farm Credit, I’ve realized what financial opportunities are available to farmers,” he said. “My dream seems a little closer to reality.”
Burrell’s goal is to provide a source for fresh and local food for those in the Hillsborough County area who do not have access to it.
“I want to own an operational farm that can support the farm-to-table restaurant,” said Burrell. “Secondly, I would love to rent my property to those who don’t have access to fresh produce or a means to grow it themselves. The internship at the GCREC and my experience with Farm Credit will enable me to learn what I need to achieve my vision as I work to make a difference with my life.”
Interested candidates for the Veteran Agriculture Selection Program should contact: Simon Bollin, Hillsborough County Agribusiness Development Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org.