PHILADELPHIA — With his burly physique and woolly beard, Brandon Barnhart looks every inch the laid-back country kid from tiny West College Corner, Ind.
But don't be fooled. This guy is driven.
After eight years in the Air Force working on nuclear cruise missiles, Barnhart returned to civilian life in 2010 and immediately reenrolled at Indiana University to finish his undergraduate degree in general studies and history.
And while he grew up around conventionally grown sweet corn, soybeans, and hay on his family's farm, he intends to do things his way — as an organic farmer.
"I enjoy the idea of working with nature as opposed to against it, of producing my own food, and leaving the environment better than I found it," says Barnhart, a student in the Veteran Organic Farming Program, an unusual partnership between Delaware Valley College in Doylestown and the Rodale Institute in Kutztown.
Come May, Barnhart, 30, will have three semesters and 36 credits of classroom work and hands-on experience under his belt, as well as an academic certificate and a business plan to launch his new career back home, where he has purchased a three-acre farm.
"There's a lot of organic stuff on the East Coast and the West Coast, but in the Midwest, it's still pretty new," he explains, while watering tiny seedlings of lettuce, beets, chard, and Asian greens inside a 68-degree greenhouse at the college.
There are two other vets in the program, which started in spring and is now open to nonveterans. Thanks to the GI Bill, the nonprofit Yellow Ribbon Foundation, and DelVal, which offers stipends for books and housing, the veterans pay nothing.
The program may be unique in the country, according to Jeff Macloud, chief operations officer of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a nonprofit in Davis, Calif., that promotes partnerships between veterans and farmers nationwide.
"There are plenty of programs that are inviting veterans to join, but the vast majority are not certificate- or degree- or credit-granting," says Macloud, a retired Air Force colonel who served in Iraq.
The DelVal program was the brainchild of Mark Smallwood, Rodale's executive director, who met coalition representatives three years ago at a trade show in Wisconsin.
"I basically said, 'I don't know what we're going to do to help our vets, but we're going to figure it out and get involved,' " recalls Smallwood, a longtime organic farmer known as "Coach" for his 20-year career as a teacher and basketball coach in Ohio and Connecticut.
Smallwood notes that the DelVal-Rodale partnership doesn't work only for veterans. American farmers, who average 57 years old, and consumers, who the Organic Trade Association estimates bought $31.5 billion worth of organic food in 2012, will benefit, too.
Students in the Veteran Organic Farming Program take courses such as soil biology, animal science, integrated pest management, principles of sustainable agriculture, and commercial vegetable production. They also participate in three practicums at Rodale's 333-acre organic farm, which has grain crops, an orchard, greenhouses, and heritage-breed hogs, goats, cows, and oxen.
Jacqueline Ricotta, associate professor of horticulture and the program's primary instructor, describes the vets this way: "They have a certain maturity, a calm. They're able to listen intently and absorb what they're being taught."
Ricotta also makes the case that farming and the military have a natural affinity.
"Farming can be unpredictable. You're dealing with nature. It's basically out of your control," she says. "It's similar to the military, where you're just following orders."
And while farming can be stressful, working with plants has been proven to be therapeutic, something that strongly appeals to Ricotta's vet-students.
"I needed to change careers for my sanity and my health," says Ian Woods, 48, a Coast Guard veteran with 23 years of emergency management experience with oil spills and other disasters.
"The culture we're in . . . everything's an emergency. You can't catch a break. This is it," he says, smiling and pointing to the raised beds in DelVal's greenhouse.
After finishing the program, Woods plans to segue into the college's four-year degree program in horticulture and environmental science. Then he wants to own an organic herb farm.
Kyle Maio, 28, a Doylestown native and Marine who was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, is the newest enrollee in the program. He has grown vegetables organically for a long time, and after leaving DelVal he wants to share his experience with, and take the organic gospel to, the public.
"I want to teach people to be self-sufficient," he says.
The vets have a role model in Dennis Riling, 31, a Marine satellite communications operator who had top-secret security clearance in Fallujah. "I was there when we took the city back. It was not pretty," he recalls.
Homecoming, too, was difficult. Riling was dealing with the psychological aftermath of his Iraq tour and, because of the recession, had trouble finding a good job.
He worked as a janitor. He delivered pizza. He and his wife sold their furniture to pay bills. Finally, he went to work at a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Dublin that paid him in fresh produce.
"A grocery store is not going to let you stock shelves for food, but a farmer can. That's what really turned me on to agriculture," says Riling, a 2012 DelVal graduate who owns two hydroponic gardening businesses in Doylestown, Veg-e Systems and Doylestown Fresh.
He got the farm program off the ground and now serves as mentor and inspiration to his fellow veterans. "These guys are real serious," he says. "They've made a commitment."