SHARPSVILLE, Pa. — When Michael Kovach first heard from George Hayden, the pitch seemed almost too good to be true.
Hayden would be retiring soon from a 20-year career in the U.S. Army. He wanted to get some experience working on a farm to aid in his transition to civilian life. The Army would pay him to spend a couple months interning at Kovach’s farm.
Kovach, owner of Walnut Hill Farm, was about to head into his busiest season. In addition to raising beef cattle, pigs and sheep on pasture, they finish somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 broilers each year. They also raise fresh turkeys for Thanksgiving, in addition to a few other batches of turkeys through the summer.
It was a no-brainer to take on an intern, particularly one with a breadth of experience like Hayden had, Kovach said.
“This year, without George, it would’ve been a rough couple of months,” Kovach said. “It’s been a godsend that he ended up here at the time.”
The U.S. Army’s Career Skills Program allows soldiers to get career training in the last 180 days before they separate from the military, said Jeanette Kahn, Career Skills Program manager. The transition assistance program works with industry partners to run the internships. The soldiers receive their Army pay and benefits while doing the training.
There are 227 Career Skills Programs at 31 Army installations. That number is ever-changing as each garrison commander can approve new industry partners that fit the needs of their soldiers.
Every soldier has unique challenges in returning to civilian life, Kahn said. CSP focuses on the “at-risk soldier population,” those on their first enlistment between the ages of 18 and 24. If they are being rapidly separated from the Army for medical or other reasons, some of the Career Skills Programs train them to go right into entry-level positions upon leaving the military, she said.
In return for training the transitioning soldiers in the hard skills for a certain job or role, the companies get “high-quality candidates who have those great soft skills, like good work ethic, ability to remain calm under pressure, good critical thinking,” Kahn said.
Building an experience
There’s also the option to do an individual internship within the Career Skills Program. That’s what Hayden chose to do in order to craft an experience in farming which requires a unique set of skills and training. There was an agricultural Career Skills Program through North Carolina State out of Fort Bragg, where he is based, but it wasn’t as comprehensive as he wanted. Plus, he planned to move back to Pennsylvania with his wife and two children after retiring, so getting hands-on experience there made sense.
A Google search led him to the PA Veteran Farming Project whose leader, Mimi Thomas-Brooker, connected him with veteran farmers Kovach and James Cornwell, of Nine Pines Farm, in York.
Kovach served eight years in the Army Reserve from 1991 to 1999. During and after his time as a reservist, Kovach worked different jobs and eventually finished his college degree in geology. He ran a small oil and gas company with a friend until they were bought out during the shale gas boom. That’s when he turned to farming.
Kovach bought his farm in 2008 when he was 39, the same age Hayden is as he’s looking to buy land and start his own farm. Most of all, he wanted to impart on Hayden the realities of day-to-day life running a farm.
“It’s a tough thing to tell somebody about,” Kovach said. “They have to live through it for a while. The experience of living through it is invaluable. It may well turn George completely away from broilers, or he may find a better way to do them.”
Hayden put together an internship where he’d spend the first half at Kovach’s farm in Mercer County and the second half at Cornwell’s in York County. He started working with Kovach in April and switched to Cornwell’s farm in June. While the Army paid him, he did need help with housing while working so far from home.
He joined the Army in 2002 and became an engineer. He’s been deployed a handful of times to a few African countries as well as Afghanistan and Iraq. Hayden grew up around Tionesta in northwestern Pennsylvania, which is where he hopes to settle back down to start his own farm after retirement.
“I enjoy hard physical work,” he said, of the similarities between being a soldier and being a farmer. “I like to be outside. I like problem solving. That’s a daily adventure.”
Hayden said he was thrown right into the work at Walnut Hill, which included a lot of work with the broiler chickens and laying hens, although he was involved in everything on the farm. One key takeaway was having an efficient layout, “so you’re not walking all over the place.”
Some of the animals are the same between his two farm internships, but he’s already seeing the differences in the way things are done. That’s what he likes about being at different farms and working with different people.
“You can mimic other people’s ideas, but don’t be so wrapped up in it that it has to be exact,” he said. “Make it work for your landscape and your agenda. I hope I can see a bunch of different farms. I learn something from every one of them.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-837-3419.)
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