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The pandemic canceled most in-person gatherings, particularly educational programs. For those with hands-on elements, this was especially challenging. For those that were able to survive, though, it may help guide the way for similar programs in the future, during the pandemic and beyond.

In January, Maine AgrAbility launched Boots-2-Bushels, a new program to help Maine veterans transition to a career in agriculture after returning home. The program offered a variety of classes, from cultivation to marketing, as well as hands-on instruction from experienced farmers using a demonstration farm at the VA Togus Hospital in Augusta.

“When you’re serving in the military, you spend years living a life of service and honing resilience, creativity, resourcefulness,” said Anne Devin, farmer veteran outreach coordinator for Maine AgrAbility. “All those characteristics translate really well to a farming lifestyle.”

Everything was on track for the program, Devin said. Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

On March 22, the VA Togus Hospital announced three positive coronavirus cases at the hospital, even before the full state lockdown orders were in place. On April 2, the hospital announced that the coronavirus had claimed its first Maine veteran.

“By the last week of March, they had made it pretty clear they weren’t going to be able to continue to support any recreational therapy programs, which is what we fell under,” Devin said.

Instead of canceling for the season, though, Devin used some of that military resilience, creativity and resourcefulness to make her program work for this brave new world.

Zooming along

The first step, as with so many education programs, was to transition the Boots-2-Bushels classes to Zoom, an online video conferencing platform that has boomed in popularity during the pandemic. The program had already set up a Zoom account in case of snow days and had used it once in February, so the move was fairly easy.

Overall, Devin said that the Zoom classes have been successful.

“It’s pretty dynamic,” Devin said. “The slides are right there, so you’re so close to the instructor. It’s very targeted, not a lot of distractions and we’re very disciplined. It’s pretty streamlined. I kind of like it.”

As with all online learning experiments during the pandemic, though, there have been challenges. Devin said some students are technologically adverse, so attendance to Zoom classes can be “hit or miss.” She also misses a lot of the in-person bonding elements like going out to lunch afterwards.

Rachel Bethea, left, Genee Gregory, center, and Anne Devin work together to finish a row of planting at Chase Stream Farm as part of the Boots 2 Bushels program. (Natalie Williams | BDN)

Most of the students were comfortable with the switch, though. In fact, some of them thought the classes have brought them closer as a group because it encourages them to continue interacting online outside of class.

“What’s funny is we’re looking to connect with others and within our community, but in fact through this have started connecting with each other,” said Loni Hamner, one of the program’s participants.

Even the instructors have enjoyed online classes.

“This is one of my favorite things to do,” said Tori Jackson, extension professor for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension who taught a farm business planning class for Boots-2-Bushels via Zoom. “Obviously, I would love to be in the same room as you all but this fosters that same sense of community, of learning as a cohort.”

The new reality has impacted the content of the course, though.

“I’m definitely going to be highlighting the internet piece [of marketing and branding],” Jackson said. “We’ll be focusing on those areas rather than how to set up agritourism venues and stuff like that — not yet.”

Rachel Bethea, left, and Genee Gregory work together to replant tomatoes in a greenhouse as part of the Boots-2-Bushels program. (Natalie Williams | BDN)

Finding a place to farm

Though the Zoom classes were an easy fix, there was the matter of finding a place where the students could learn the hands-on elements of farming at a safe social distance. The program was set up to have 10 class sessions, followed by field work on raised garden beds at the VA Togus Hospital from the end of May until September.

Due to the pandemic though, the VA Togus Hospital wasn’t an option, so Devin and her husband, Tim, decided to move classes to their land, Chase Stream Farm in Monroe.

“We could have three or four [farmers] at a time, max,” Devin said.

To make it work, the students visit the farm once a week in groups of two or three. The Devins also equipped their farm with protective face masks, port-o-potties and plenty of stations for hand washing and sanitizing. Eventually, Devin said that instead of asking students to pack a lunch for work days, they will be able to dine on the produce they harvest that day.

Devin said that only seven of the group’s 16 students are able to make it to the farm for the rest of the hands-on sessions between now and the end of the program in September — the less-than-central location was another reason that Devin didn’t want to host the hands-on portion on her farm in the first place. However, for the aspiring farmers, the hands-on experience is invaluable.

“The program has allowed my husband and I to be more self-sufficient in a way that gives us support and a little more of a safety net because we have access to so many people who have resources and knowledge,” said participant Rachel Bethea. “It makes a huge difference for those of us who are reentering the civilian world.”

Moving forward

Devin said that though the Zoom classes and staggered fieldwork are not a replacement for face-to-face interaction with the whole group, having to adjust the program in the pandemic has taught her new lessons about resilience that she hopes to implement in the program going forward.

“I submitted a grant proposal for this program so that we could … have it again next year,” Devin said. “When I submitted the proposal, a big section in proposals is, ‘What’s your risk management strategy?’ I was able to articulate [what] we’ve already done this to mitigate this year’s crisis, we see it as a continuation of a risk management strategy in the future.”

Plus, the program has more gravitas in light of the pandemic, which has revealed weaknesses in the national food system.

“Victory gardens are coming back into fashion, several seed companies saying we’re out of seeds, Devin said. “We’re seeing a lot of uptick in our own community request for CSAs. A lot of people are trying to buy more from their farmers. I think you’re just finding this mass desire for people to have a little more control over the food that they are eating.”

For the veterans that are rounding out their final weeks of the program with monthly visits to Devin’s farm and a few more Zoom classes, the pandemic not only changed their approach to the class, but their approach to their new lives.

“It’s reaffirmed the reasons that I got into farming,” said participant JP Espinosa. “Food is a really great way to embed yourself in a community, providing a wholesome product, being able to share it with your neighbors and friends. This pandemic showed that that’s more important [now than ever].”