UMKC, Veterans Community Project Gives Veterans the Edge in Booming Urban Agriculture Industry

Container farming program plants seed for training as a pathway to economic viability

There’s something special growing inside a cluster of shipping containers outside the Veterans Community Project at 89th and Troost Avenue in Kansas City.

Inside three independent-model container farmhouses, U.S. military veterans are learning how to use controlled-growth environments for crops such as basil and mushrooms, and eventually strawberries. While there’s no soil inside the massive containers, there is an abundance of opportunity for the military veterans who are learning agribusiness skills that can improve their lives, as well as help feed the community.

They're part of the From Seed To Table program, a pilot program between the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Veterans Community Project (VCP), a nonprofit organization focused on ending military veteran homelessness. The VSP team recruits, selects and trains military veterans on container-farm processes, hydroponic systems, food safety and technological innovations combining farm and STEM for increased specialty crop production. Veterans also receive financial, marketing, entrepreneurship and private pesticide applicator training. The coalition’s overarching goal is to establish a pathway to economic viability and independence for veterans.

The program has three main objectives:

  • Recruit and retain 50 military veteran beginning farmers
  • Transition at least 50% of these veteran farmers to agricultural or farm-STEM part-or full-time employment opportunities
  • Develop a veteran, urban, organic and sustainable-focused pilot program that can be replicated at future VCP site locations by guaranteeing a market for specialty crops

Led by Angela Cottrell, Ed.D., director of research and institute programs for the Missouri Institute for Defense and Energy and adjunct instructor in the UMKC School of Education, Social Work and Psychological Sciences, the program is funded by a three-year, $600,000 grant from the USDA and a $63,000 grant from the UMKC Entrepreneurship Innovation Program through the Kauffman Foundation.

Cottrell partnered with U.S. Marine veteran and VCP CEO Bryan Meyer, J.D. ’06, whom she advised while he was studying law at UMKC.

“I met with Bryan and just tossed out the idea, ‘What do you think about training veterans on controlled-environment agriculture?’” Cottrell said.

Meyer didn’t need much convincing. His enthusiastic response to the idea, “All about it. Let’s go!’ planted the seed for forward movement.

Cottrell said controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) has grown exponentially in recent years and is expected to be a $170 billion industry by 2025.  She envisioned a program where veterans could gain a new skill set, be compensated for their time and enter into a workforce development pipeline where they can find additional employment, and start their own farm or utilize that skill set to transition into a farm STEM-related position.

Faculty from across several UMKC academic units joined to contribute their expertise.

  • Juan Cabrera-Garcia, Ph.D., assistant research professor at UMKC and state vegetable specialist at University of Missouri Extension, serves as the team’s holistic horticulture expert and leads efforts to get the hydroponic systems up and running.
  • JJ Lee, Ph.D., in earth and environmental sciences is helping to optimize sensors and water treatment systems.
  • Jeff Hornsby, Ph.D., Henry W. Bloch Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship and Director of the Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation leads entrepreneurship training for the veterans.
  • Charles Murnieks, Ph.D., associate professor and the A. Gottlieb Chair of Strategic Management in the Department of Entrepreneurship and Management leads the entrepreneurship training for the veterans.
  • Karin Chang, Ph.D., associate director and associate research professor in the School of Education, Social Work and Psychological Sciences, ensures the primary objectives are being met in her role as the external evaluator for the project.

Controlled-environment techniques offer several advantages over traditional farming.

“This is a solution, particularly for cities like Kansas City, and for areas where growing traditionally is just not possible,” Cottrell explained. “You’re reducing that footprint, yield 10 times the amount that you would on an acre of land, and you can grow year-round. Even if it’s 10 degrees outside we’re still able to farm, produce and train our veterans.”

Not only are veterans learning how to grow the crops, but they’re also gaining other marketable job skills, including pesticide application and produce safety, according to Cabrera-Garcia.

“We give them certificates to ensure that they have the ability to get hired in any agricultural enterprise,” Cabrera-Garcia said.

Meyer said the partnership with UMKC appealed to him not only in terms of the growth and development it could offer local veterans, but also the shared goal with VCP to expand outreach beyond Kansas City.

“This couldn’t have happened without community support,” Meyer said. “Now that we’ve established this model, we can grow into other locations."

The first two cohorts of veterans have gone through the training program, and the next started in July. Their produce is available at Everyday Produce in Kansas City, as well as in local restaurants.

While the education component remains at the forefront of the program, Cottrell says the team is “thinking big,” with plans to eventually distribute the produce to local neighborhoods in need.

“We want to have a multimillion-dollar controlled-environment agriculture facility in Kansas City, where we are hyper-focused on serving impoverished neighborhoods  where we know food deserts exist, where we know access to nutritional food is expensive and very difficult to find,” Cottrell said. “We want to try to utilize this CEA system to provide that for Kansas City.”

To further their efforts, Cottrell and Cabrera-Garcia are exploring interest and opportunities to develop a formal curriculum on CEA to attract new UMKC students and expose current students in other programs to urban agriculture. They received a $29,998 grant from National Institute of Food and Agriculture to survey the industry and UMKC students to assess the potential viability of a developing a minor degree.

“There are individual classes and certificate programs available elsewhere. We want CEA to be the entire focus,” Cottrell said.

Beside the educational component, she sees community benefits.

“This could be students helping students. I could see students working the containers and we could provide fresh produce to the food pantry at the Dr. Raj Bala Agrawal Care Center at UMKC. It could go to Sodexo to be used in the university’s cafeteria.”

In addition to the actual production, Cottrell sees opportunities for faculty as well.

“There’s the opportunity for faculty engagement through biology, chemistry and medicine. We know there’s an interest in this type of programming in Kansas City. The students are excited about it. If we were able to move forward, we would be early adopters from an educational perspective.”

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