Veterans’ program pays more than honey | The life

For 10 days, Ed Forney chatted with every visitor who passed his table at the West Virginia Grown Country Store at the State Fair of West Virginia.

Forney’s display also attracted a lot of attention.

Turns out, fair-goers have a sweet tooth, and there isn’t much sweeter — even at the state fair, where food lurks around every corner — than a bottle of honey.

But it wasn’t just the honey, or the samples offered by Forney, that drew the crowd.

The signs around his display helped a lot, as people stopped by to learn more and buy “honey produced by West Virginia veterans.”

Although Forney is the face of fair goers and many others might associate themselves with veteran-produced honey, he is actually one of more than 300 veterans in the West Virginia Veterans & Warriors to Agriculture program.

Forney, a U.S. Army veteran who resides in Hedgesville, Berkeley County, says his wife Cheryl retired from WVU Medical Center where she spent much of her time working at the trauma center.

“After she retired, she took up beekeeping to relax,” he said.

As the two men built an apiary on their farm, he said they began to consider establishing a veteran beekeeping program in the east of the panhandle.

That was in 2012, which coincided with the creation of the Veterans and State Warriors program.

Instead of creating a program, Forney joined one as a participant.

“I was one of the very first to sign up for it,” he said.

A few days later, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture visited his farm to see his apiary and asked him if he would train other veterans.

“We had no idea what we were getting into, but we said we would volunteer,” he said.

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Although the program was operational for several years before West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt took office in 2017, Forney said it was after the changing of the guard that the things started to take off.

“We have seen major changes,” he said. “He (Leonhardt) is a veteran and is the driving force behind the program. So it was a much better communication and a much better partnership. Now that he’s at the helm, there’s more structure.

There are several reasons for the beekeeping program. The first is that he offers a form of therapy to veterans who may be suffering from PTSD.

Leonhardt, a retired Navy lieutenant colonel, actually brings beekeeping experience to the job and said he knows firsthand how calming it can be.

He said these hives were especially useful when he was on active duty, serving as a liaison with the National Security Agency in the early 1990s.

“I had beehives in my garden and if I had a really stressful day, I would take one of those 5-gallon buckets, turn it upside down, and watch the bees come and go,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the calming effect of seeing how these bees were thrashing about, laden with pollen, just to get back to the hive and distribute it to the combs.”

That’s what Forney says drew him and his wife to beekeeping, and now other veterans to the program.

“If you’ve ever had a garden, you can work for ‘an hour,’ and then four hours later you realize, ‘My God, that’s been four hours,’ because you’re relaxing so much,” he said. . “That’s the thing.”

Men say they often hear stories like that. Stories of how the program has helped people forget their problems. How it saved their lives.

“We have people like Eric (Grandon) who say they owe their lives to the program,” Leonhardt said of a Clay County veteran who served in recent wars in the Middle East. “He found it had become a business for him. He now has a beehive at the Culture Center in Charleston and he says he owes the program that he didn’t put a gun to his head.

Forney added: “I have been his mentor from the start and it is life changing. Not just a little, but completely changing the lives of his family.

Through beekeepers like Forney, the WVDA provides training for veterans of the program, and also purchases and supplies beekeeping equipment so participants can start a home business.

This is another part of the program.

“What we’re doing is putting a structure in place that allows a veteran to start a business in West Virginia,” Leonhardt said. “Some people do it as a part-time business. Some people do it as a full-time business like Ed does. But the idea is to grow West Virginia agriculture at the same time we help people who need help.

Forney explains that veterans buy their own bees, tags and bottles, and their new business often becomes a family affair as they work together to produce and sell honey.

In some cases, Forney sells it for them if a veteran, for example, struggles with crowds or just doesn’t want to set up and sell.

But in any case, the veterans keep 100% of the profits from the honey they produce.

And beekeeping isn’t the only program that falls under the Veterans and Warriors umbrella because since the Legislature funded it for $250,000 in 2018, agrotherapy has been introduced to Huntington VA.

This program trains veterans in various areas of agriculture.

Additionally, Leonhardt said the department hopes to implement a mentorship program that places veterans on farms that don’t have heirs. He said the goal is that the farm can continue when an owner dies or retires.

Both Leonhardt and Forney said they were excited about the direction of Veterans & Warriors and the beekeeping program itself, which has received attention across the country and as far away as Angola.

They encourage other veterans who might be struggling or who might be interested in learning more, to request more information.

“This veterans program is one of those tools that we use to bring everyone together,” Leonhardt said. “It’s a common goal that excites people. For me, it’s very important to be a veteran.

“We want people to talk to us,” he continued, adding that the program is not a cure for PTSD and does not offer any medical advice, but can provide a connection to help. “Sometimes all they (someone in crisis) needs to hear is just a voice on the other end of the line.”

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For more information about the West Virginia Veterans & Warriors to Agriculture program, call 304-558-2210 or visit

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