Adam Ingrao: Connecting Veterans and Agriculture

According to Ingrao, connecting farmers with fellow veterans is not much of a stretch. “It really is just a conversation that has to take place. And that conversation happening with another veteran, usually the veterans respond really well."

June 6, 2018

Adam Ingrao and Kraig Ehm sit and talk.

According to Ingrao, connecting farmers with fellow veterans is not much of a stretch. “It really is just a conversation that has to take place. And that conversation happening with another veteran, usually the veterans respond really well."

adam & kraig2

In the Field: Connecting Veterans and Agriculture with Adam Ingrao - Transcript

Kraig Ehm: Welcome to In The Field a podcast originating from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. I'm your host, Kraig Ehm. In this episode of In The Field, I'm joined by Adam Ingrao PHD student in the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University and Executive Director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan. Adam, thanks for joining me.

Adam Ingrao: Thanks for having me, Kraig. It's a real pleasure.

Ehm: Now, before we learn about what you're currently up to, take us back to growing up in California because that's where your story began.

Ingrao: Absolutely right. I was born and raised in southern California, right around the Riverside area. A really agriculturally rich area of southern California, but I didn't grow up in an agriculture family. Actually, my first job at while I was in high school was working as a picker and packer in a cherry orchard. And early on that kind of instilled this really, really firm love for agriculture. I continued working in AG through high school and then ended up leaving southern California to join the US military a bit later.

Ehm: In 2002, you were enlisted in the US Army, correct?

Adam Ingrao: Yeah. I actually enlisted in a direct response to the 9/11 attacks, and it's something that really in my family, I'm a fourth generation soldier. My great-grandfather served in World War One, my grandfather in World War II. My Dad served during the Vietnam era and from a very early age, it was instilled upon me that national service was very important. When your country needed you, it was your responsibility to stand up to that need. And, that's what I did. I felt as though I was necessary for me to enlist in the military and after 9/11 that was solidified. And so, in 2002 I did enlist in the military.

Ehm: You were a patriot missile fire controller?

Ingrao: Correct, yeah. I got to play with a big missile's basically. And I was a radar technician on the patriot missile system. It was a very, very technical job, a lot of high stress. Basically if a radar went down, we worked until that radar was up and running. So, time was really not a factor for us, but it was a really enriching time in my life. I really enjoyed the military. When I enlisted it was actually, it was really a career move for me. I had planned on staying in the military until I retired and unfortunately that's not how it played out for me. I was actually a injured in 2003 and that injury was severe enough to leave me a disabled veteran and actually directly caused my department from the military. So I was medically discharged from the military.

Ehm: Once you left the military then where did you go?

Ingrao: Well, I came back home. When I left the military, I was on cast, and I was in that cast for about a year, and I came back home to my parents, and it was a time in my life that I think a lot of veterans deal with. When we're in the military, you really believe that you can pretty much accomplish anything. That work ethic, the drive that's in the military is really instilled very heavily. And, when you become an individual that becomes injured in the military, your whole life is turned upside down. I was a very able bodied individual when I was in the military and when I left the military I was not. And really my whole plan when I was discharged from the military was to go right back in. Basically I had a conversation with my commanding officer. I remembered very distinctly after coming home from the hospital one day and he basically told me, he said, "You know what? Go home, get better, and then just come back in and re-enlist." And that was my, I had every intention of doing that, but as the years ticked on I realized that the disability that I had was permanent and it's really difficult to come to terms with that when you're an able bodied individual. Just coming to terms with the fact that I am a disabled vet. So, the years ticked on and now here we are 12 years later and the injury continues to give me problems and it really is an inhibiting factor. So I was never actually able to go back into the military, which is something that I carry with me to this day. Leaving my unit was one of the most heart wrenching things that ever happened to me. These were my brothers and sisters that I shoot in arms with. I mean, we had each other's backs, it's a comradery that's oftentimes not experienced in civilian life. And, it was very difficult to leave those individuals and that's something that even to this day, I deal with the guilt I would say associated with having to leave my unit well my brothers and sisters were going to combat. But that's one of the reasons that I do the things that I do today for veterans.

Ehm: Now you used your post 9/11 GI bill to go to school. Where did you go? What did you study? How did that come about?

Ingrao: Well, I came to a point in my life where I realized that I had this 9/11, these benefits basically that I could utilize to go to school anywhere. And, I took advantage of that. I went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in California in the central coast of California. Probably, one of the well, worldwide, one of the most rich agricultural areas in the world. And I studied agriculture and environmental plant science in the horticulture and crop science department there. And had a concentration and plant protection science, which I immediately became attracted to. I realized very early on that I had a big affinity for working with insects. And so, I ended up taking that and graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 2013 summa cum laude and ended up coming to Michigan State after that.

Ehm: How did you end up at MSU?

Ingrao: You know, it's an interesting story. I actually met a faculty member from the horticulture department here at MSU at a conference and that conversation built into being recruited basically to MSU. The horticulture department MSU recruited me here initially, but I was actually brought in on a fellowship on the plant science recruitment fellowship. And so that fellowship allowed me to rotate between departments that first year that I was here at MSU. It paid for my tuition, which was really nice thing to have. And it gave me the flexibility to actually identify what I really, really had passion for. And I realized that horticulture was not the area that I had a lot of passion for, but I did know that entomology was something I did have a passion for. And so, I ended up finding my home in the department of entomology.

Ehm:  A bit of a climate difference between California and sunny Michigan.

Ingrao: A bit. I will say that the first winter here was the, 100 year winter that we had and I had never seen so much snow in my entire life and my wife and I were, well, I'll say lucky enough at this point, but we got to experience the power outage in Lansing and we didn't have power for nine days. So, for a California boy born and raised and really never had been into northern climates until then it was quite a learning experience. But I've grown to love Michigan.

Ehm: Who are you working with it MSU and what is your research focused on?


Ingrao: So I work with Dr. Zsofia Szendrei in the vegetable entomology lab. Our research in the lab is really focused around pest management and pest issues related to vegetable production. My research is focused on asparagus production and really what my research is trying to do is develop a biological control program utilizing natural enemies of beneficial insects. Basically predators that are occurring in agricultural fields, and we're trying to determine if we can actually utilize those natural enemies to give us pest control for the asparagus minor and the common asparagus beetle.

Ehm: Now the entomology department required doesn't anymore, but it did require in the past an enrichment component to each PHD program. It's nine units of work outside their area of expertise. What did you choose and why?

Ingrao: So, I really feel that this enrichment component is, it was a great aspect of what was required of PHD students. I really had the opportunity, I felt like it was an opportunity to really think outside of the box and expose myself to something that maybe I wouldn't take the jump to do without the support of the department. And so, what I chose to do was I proposed to my committee that I would develop a statewide veteran's outreach program to help veterans connect with careers in agriculture. And that's really where it started. My committee was supportive of that, which was great for me because it allowed me to get out and do this work while I was still being a student basically. And, it was really up to me to develop this program within the state and I felt very passionate about, like I'd said, you know, that comradery that military individuals have that veterans have in active duty individuals have, it's something that goes deep and never goes away. And because I had left my unit early on, I always felt that I wanted to come give back to veterans. I wanted to continue to work with my brothers and sisters. And I saw this as a great opportunity. And so, the first thing I did was I had to identify someone that could help me take this on. It was a big project, but I felt like I could do it. And so I reached out to Michigan Food and Farming Systems who is a nonprofit that's situated here on campus and met with their executive director. I just walked into her office one day, and we sat down, talked for a couple of hours, and next thing I knew I was basically running their veteran outreach program through that nonprofit and that continued for the next two years.I continued working in that capacity with them, over those two years I made direct contact with about 300 veterans here in Michigan. And basically had conversations with them about careers in agriculture, how I saw agriculture is a, not only as a, as an avenue for individuals to have a viable career option, but also it's an industry that allows you to address a lot of the disabilities that are associated with veterans. And farmers are hard workers. You've got to get up early in the morning, you got a lot of responsibilities. All of those things rely on you. It's you or nothing that basically is running that farm and that really responds well with a lot of military members. We're very driven, we have a lot of self determination. We have a lot of hard work and military individuals really have the best, in my opinion, the best management and leadership training that the world has to offer. I mean, these are very highly trained individuals. And so, that transitioned from a veteran or an active duty military personnel to a farmer really is not that far of a stretch, and it really is just the conversation that has to take place. And that conversation happened with another veteran. Usually the veterans respond really well, and it starts to sink in that well maybe this is something that I can think about doing as a career. And I will say this, that post 9/11 veterans, about 20% of us have post traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury. Those individuals in particular respond very well to a working on a farm. And the reason being is that you have the safety and security support of a family there when you do need them, but it also, it's a slower paced environment. It's not the rat race, the nine to five. It's not sitting in a cubicle. It's definitely a more conducive work environment for individuals dealing with those types of things. And so, farming not only has this ability to support your family, it also has the ability to support your health and that's something that I really tried to communicate with a lot of veterans early on and still do to this day. The response to the outreach was tremendous, I'll say in the state of Michigan and the support that we've gotten, the support that I've gotten to help continue to do this mission has been outstanding from everyone from the USDA to the Farm Bureau. All the way to [inaudible 00:12:23], all the way down to local conservation districts. It's really been a tremendous response, and I feel we're really making a difference in the lives of veterans through this work.

Ehm: Now, the enrichment component led you to be the executive director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan. What exactly is that organization and what do you and they do?

Ingrao:  So Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan is one of four state chapters that were piloted in 2015, for a national organization the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Farmer Veteran Coalition is a national nonprofit organization. We've been around since 2008, established by Michael O'Gorman out of California. And really what the Farmer Veteran Coalition ambition is, is to mobilize veterans to feed America. We do that through all sorts of activities, whether it be programming, through funding. We do it through resources, we do it through education. So there's a lot of avenues that we can offer. I will say that some of our more popular programs within the Farmer Veteran Coalition national would be our homeroom by heroes label, which is a certification that allows a producer to put a label that says homegrown by heroes. Really attractive label, that you can put on your products to help consumers determine what is a veteran produced product in the marketplace. So, in the agricultural world, competition and trying to get your product to stand out is a very difficult thing to do. And so this label allows consumers to actually make a choice. Am I going to purchase something that a veteran produced or am I going to purchase something else and we feel that, that's a good avenue for our producers, our veterans to help them stand out in the marketplace. Probably our most popular program at the national level is the Farmer Veteran Coalition fellowship program. This fellowship is a yearly fellowship that veterans can apply for. And basically what it is, it's an opportunity for them to propose and apply for a $1 to $5,000 grant through our organization, to help them expand their farm business. Last year we gave away over $350,000 to 85 veterans. Many of those here in Michigan as well. This year we are hoping to give at least that much away again. And the program has been around since 2011, this year we will top over a million dollars that we've given directly to veterans to help support their agricultural endeavors. It's a piggyback program. Off of that is our geared to give program. Once you become a Farmer Veteran Coalition fellow, you then are eligible to receive a Kubota L series tractor. So we have a partnership with Kubota Tractor and every quarter we give away one of these tractors to a FVC fellow. Actually it was this week we gave away our fourth tractor to a navy veteran out of California. So these are some ways that we help veterans basically become more sustainable and profitable on the farm through supporting them, through helping them get out into the marketplace. And then one of the other huge things that we do and one of the big, big components that we're working on here in the state is education outreach. So, one of the things that's difficult to do at a national level because we have so many different agricultural climates around the United States, you know, a program that we developed for education in California is not always going to translate to something useful here in Michigan, because we have two totally different climates and I am one that can definitely attest to that. And so, what we are really doing here at the state chapter level is that we are trying to develop education programs to help veterans become more sustainable and educated about topics around agriculture. This year we're going to be having a soil health workshop in April and then we'll also be doing an integrated pest management workshop and that will be taking place at the Clarksville research station in May. So those are some examples of what we do here at the state level. I will say that I think one of the most important things that we do at the state level is building community. Veterans work very well with other veterans. And the comradery again that we have together is tremendous. And so, having a veteran to veteran pure network where we can rely on one another. My phone is always open to the vets I work with and I get phone calls about everything from helping me apply to come to MSU to what's going on with my plants, what does this insect that I found on here? And so, we really as a support unit, as a group of veterans, I feel like with the, about 200 members that we have here in Michigan, I pretty much have somebody I can call on for just about any topic. I may not know about row crops very much and their production, but I definitely know individuals that I can call upon other veterans that are willing to stand up and willing to help other veterans. So it's about developing community as well.

Ehm: You're taking as a student, you're taking what you're learning and studying in the lab and then you're teaching it to veterans in the field?

Ingrao: Absolutely. I'm a firm believer in the communication of science. If science does what it does, we have basic scientists that are doing really some foundational research, but I consider myself an applied scientist. And, if my work cannot translate to the public then I don't feel like I'm doing my job. And so I think it's imperative that everything that I'm learning here at MSU is absolutely brought back out into the public. And, my public and the group that I worked with the most is veterans and one of the things that I offer to my vets is, I always offer my services as far as intersect identification, scouting, any of these types of things I offer them for free. I do farm visits for our veterans to look at problems that they may be having. Even just to brainstorm with them. A lot of these individuals are very passionate about getting into agriculture, but some of them don't have the educational background that's necessary to tackle some really, really intricate problems that can come up in Ag. And so, again, having that support system, and I consider myself a component of that support system, I think we can tackle a lot of these problems together in a veteran community.

Ehm: So there is a learning curve to agriculture, but you're the conduit for getting the information that you have and that you're learning into the field so that it can be applicable to people?

Ingrao:  Absolutely. I really consider myself fortunate to be here at MSU. The learning opportunity that has been afforded to me is not something that's available to everybody. And so I feel that it's my responsibility to take that information that's being shared with me and share it with those who are not able to be here. I think that's something that all of us need to practice. It's basically supporting our fellow individuals that are out here working in this industry. Whatever industry you're in, you know, you have the opportunity if you're a student here at MSU to really, really change things. And I think that's something that we talk a lot about here at MSU is the ability of a spartan to really make a difference. I feel like this is my opportunity to do that. Working with veterans is definitely my opportunity to make a difference in my community.

Ehm: What do you hope to accomplish with the coalition?

Ingrao: Oh wow. Well, I really hope to see a surge in farmer veterans here in the state of Michigan. Well, all kidding aside, one of the things that I really feel passionate about is agriculture. We have a population of farmers that is aging here in the United States. I think the average age of the US farmer is about 59 now. If we are serious about maintaining food security in this country, we have got to replace those farmers with new and educated individuals to fill those boots that are going to be vacant here soon. I think that veterans are absolutely the most well poised group of individuals to fill that slot. We have the skills necessary to be effective in agriculture. We have the desire and the work ethic that goes along with the agricultural work ethic and really what I envisioned seeing. And really what my hope is for the organization is to continue to see the farmer veteran population grow. And for us to really drive down that average age of farmers, so that we see a young group of farmers that are able bodied, that are helping us secure our food security for the future and I think Michigan has a great opportunity to do that. One thing about Michigan, coming from California, the Ag climate is very different and I feel like the Ag climate here in Michigan is much more of a community environment. I do feel that we have the opportunity, really a unique opportunity here in Michigan to not only help our agricultural industry but to help our veterans. We have about 660,000 veterans here in Michigan. And one of the unique things about that veteran community here in Michigan is that most of them are national guard members. So we are a guard state here in Michigan. We do not have any active duty military basis and so, one of the trends that happens when you leave the military, is you typically go back home. When I was at Fort Bliss, I went back in Texas, I went back home to California. I didn't stay in Texas and about 40% of the individuals who leave a duty station end up staying in that area. So you have 60% that are automatically leaving and going somewhere else. That doesn't happen here in Michigan because all of our guard members already live in work here in Michigan. So most of them stay, and really that gives us the avenue to help these individuals early on transition to careers in agriculture. So, one of the things that we're doing currently is we're trying to work with the transition assistance program and it's called TAPS. In the military we refer to affectionately as death by power point. It's a program that helps veterans to identify some transitional things that they'll be going through once they leave the military. And we are working to become part of that program so that these vets that are transitioning from their duty stations here in Michigan are aware of the opportunities in agriculture that are here to them. And, we have tremendous support from the agricultural community here. I can honestly say that every time I get around, whether it be at a farm bureau meeting or any Ag expo, the feeling that I get from the public and the reaction that they get when they see the work that we're doing, trying to help veterans move into these careers, the supports tremendous in. And the community seems to want this. We want this and I know that the veterans want this. They're definitely looking for these avenues to help them become successful and sustainable on the farm and in life.

Ehm:  Farmers and veterans have a good work ethic, so it's easy to see how they would be able to relate to one another.

Ingrao: Absolutely. I mean, you know, farmers wake up at the break of dawn, they may be plowing a field. Soldiers wake up at the break of dawn and we're usually running somewhere doing PT or something like that, but the skills that we learn in the military transfer very nicely over into Ag. And so, even if you're dealing with a soldier or a sailor, or an airman, that that has not actually worked in Ag before, they understand the work ethic that's necessary for it. They've lived that work ethic and so really it just becomes an education component, which in my opinion is probably the easiest of all of it is just learning what you need to do and that's where we come in. Is we help with that education, that connection to the education, helping them just determine what resources are available. You know, I actually just was talking with a veteran via email yesterday, actually three of us. The two vets that I was talking to, one of them has just started an Ag tech program here at MSU and the other one just actually submitted his application for the horticulture department. And so, to also talking to vets and letting them know that these opportunities are out there for them. Most of them don't even know that I can come to MSU and choose from a multitude of different Ag tech programs and get some very good education behind me. So that when I do start that farm by myself, that learning curve isn't so steep because what we know with beginning farmers and ranchers is that, that first three to five years is critical to their success. And if you don't have the educational background to really make a go of it, those first three to five years, oftentimes a farm can fail and so some individuals don't have the opportunity to come back to MSU. Some of us do, but those that don't definitely should not be left behind.

Ehm: Anything else you'd like to add?

Ingrao: Absolutely Kraig. If there are any veterans listening that are interested in getting involved with the Farmer Veteran Coalition or even individuals that are interested in helping with the organization, they can contact us through our Facebook page, Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan. We also have a national website, which is www.farm.co.org, all one word. Also, individuals here in Michigan can contact me directly. My number is area code 951-237-5311 and my email here at MSU is I-N-G-R-A-O-A-D@MSU.edu.

Ehm: What puts a smile on your face every day with the work that you do?

Ingrao: It's really being able to work with my fellow veterans. It gives me a feeling that I really can't explain. The group of vets that we work with here in Michigan and across the country, they are passionate individuals, they're patriotic individuals, and they really want to ensure the success of the United States, whether it be through military action or it be through securing our food. That really, it really, that's really what puts a smile on my face. When I can see a vet who has come to me at one point and contemplated, you know, even some of the most brutal things that we can think about. One of the things that we talk about in the veteran community is our suicide statistic. It's said that 22 of us commit suicide every day and that's something that sticks with me. And, if I can change even one of those individuals decisions to make that ultimate sacrifice, then this work has all been worth it. And that's really what puts a smile on my face, is knowing that I'm doing what I can do to change that and ensure that my brothers and sisters are well taken care of and have every opportunity that they've fought so valiantly for.

Ehm: I would like to thank Adam Ingrao, PHD student in the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University and Executive Director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition to Michigan for joining me today. I would also like to say thank you for your service and sacrifice for our country.

Ingrao: Thank you, Kraig.

Ehm: Be sure to listen next time to another episode of In The Field.

In the Field