Heroes in the field

Adam Ingrao, a U.S. Army veteran, is co-director of the Michigan Food and Farming Systems Veterans in Agriculture Network, where he works at establishing statewide outreach programs to help his fellow veterans connect with careers in agriculture.

When Adam Ingrao joined the United States Army in 2002, it was for life.

That’s what he thought then. In 2004, he was injured and received a medical discharge. He said that injury and discharge turned his life upside down.

“I enlisted in a direct response to the 9/11 attacks. I’m a fourth-generation Army soldier. From a very early age, it was instilled in me that national service was very important. When your country needed you, it was your responsibility to stand up to that need,” he said.

“As a member of the military, you believe that you can accomplish anything – and going from being an able-bodied person to a disabled veteran just turned my life upside down,” he said. “Leaving my unit was one of the most heart-wrenching things that ever happened to me. These were my brothers and sisters, we had each other’s backs, and I was leaving them. I deal with that guilt even today.”

It turns out, though, that the can-do spirit Ingrao learned in the military stuck. He used his GI Bill® benefits to acquire an undergraduate degree at California Polytechnic State University, and then was offered a fellowship to study plant science at Michigan State University.

As a doctoral student with a National Science Foundation fellowship, Ingrao is still learning about himself.

“I learned that I have a big affinity for working with insects,” he said. “I identified the area that I had passion for and found my home in the Department of Entomology.”

There, he works with associate professor Zsofia Szendrei in her Vegetable Entomology Lab on biological control of asparagus crop pests.

For anyone else, working on a doctorate, working in a lab and dealing with a nagging military injury might be enough.

Not for Ingrao.

He is co-director of the Michigan Food and Farming Systems Veterans in Agriculture Network, where he works at establishing statewide outreach programs to help his fellow veterans connect with careers in agriculture.

Connecting farmers with veterans is not much of a stretch, Ingrao said.

“It really is just a conversation that has to take place. And when that conversation happens with another veteran, usually the veterans respond really well. And it starts to sink in that maybe this is something that they can think about doing as a career.”

Last November, Ingrao and fellow Army veteran Dylan Thomas founded the Michigan Chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan, which now has 300 members. They are hosting the organization’s national conference at MSU Nov. 30-Dec. 2. They anticipate that 500 farmer veterans from around the country will attend to learn from MSU experts. The meeting will include officials from the U.S. departments of Defense, Labor and Agriculture.

And, for most, that would be enough.

Not for Ingrao.

He has rallied support to launch the Heroes to Hives program. It is a partnership between his farm, Bee Wise Farms LLC, and the MSU Michigan Pollinator Initiative. The program will offer formal training to combat veterans in beekeeping through a nine-month, veteran-led education program.

“Last year my wife and I launched the program with five combat vets at our farm. Over the past nine months, I have personally trained these individuals in everything from bee biology and behaviors to pest management and honey harvesting,” he said.

The Heroes to Hives program combines classroom training with hands-on instruction, providing each student with two hives to manage for the season.

“The success of the program was unlike anything I expected, and as a result, our partnership with MSU’s MPI expanded the program through a $15,000 gift from AT&T and a reoccurring private donation,” Ingrao said.

Ingrao noted that this is just one of his efforts with vets and beekeeping. Other programs train veterans transitioning from homelessness to become beekeepers, and use beekeeping as a component of nature-based therapy programs for combat vets suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

MSU recently achieved gold status in the Veteran-Friendly School Program created by the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. This program recognizes Michigan colleges and universities for their efforts to serve veterans and their families.

Bill Ravlin, chair of the MSU Department of Entomology, said he is excited about developing a clear pathway for veterans who want to study at MSU.

“A real attraction of recruiting vets into entomology is the unique skills and experiences they bring,” Ravlin said. “Their work ethic, drive and maturity fit well with our entomology graduate programs, and this often allows them to serve as role models for other students.”

Ravlin said he wants to provide career options that can match common skills or interests of vets with funding support available for them.

Ravlin and Ingrao are working together to improve understanding of the stumbling blocks for vets considering higher education.

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill

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