Written by Evan Eagan

Dustin Cutler is on a mission to make the world a greener place.

Compelled to enlist in the Coast Guard in the early 2000s because he was “impressed with their focus on environmental stewardship,” it wasn’t until after separating that he heard his calling to agriculture while traveling Europe on bicycle. One stop in particular during his travels had a profound impact on him.

“One of the farms we went to was by the Normandy D-Day beaches and I was amazed at how they were farming out there,” said the 35-year-old California native. “It was a cross between organic and bio-dynamic farming. I felt like I was in harmony with the natural cycles of farming, and it just really impacted me.”

This experience led him to seek out the challenges and issues facing the environment, and, eventually, to enroll at University of California, Davis, where he earned a degree in environmental policy. After graduation, however, Cutler was unsure whether he wanted to get into advocacy or be hands-on with farming.

With little tangible experience in farming, Cutler sought opportunities to ‘get his hands dirty.’ As he searched the internet for leads, he found Farmer Veteran Coalition, and, shortly after becoming a member, received an email notifying him of internship opportunities in his area. He immediately applied and was selected for a four-month internship.

During the internship Cutler has been working closely with FVC’s Internship Program Manager Matt Smiley at Jacobs Farms’ urban farm in San Jose, California, which has a two-acre section dedicated for veteran interns. On the plot of land they grow pepper, cabbage, cucumber, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, basil, radishes, corn and flowers.

Through tending to these crops, Cutler has learned everything from the basics of seeding and irrigation techniques to identifying deficiencies in plant nutrition through visual inspection and harvesting techniques.

“The program has given me so much more information and hands-on experience than what I could have gotten from just searching online,” he said. “It’s giving me actual experiences. I’m connecting with people in the industry and getting direct knowledge from farmers. Also, being out in the field and hanging out with other veterans is great. I really enjoy getting up in the morning.”

One day per week Cutler also works at Jacobs Farms’ hydroponic greenhouse facility in Freedom, California. At the facility, which is dedicated to basil production, Cutler receives hands-on experience in hydroponics farming—the type of farming he plans to pursue in the future.

Another aspect of agriculture Cutler is being exposed to, that is often overlooked, is the business side. Between working the fields and manning a farm stand at the urban farm, Cutler is learning to keep harvesting records, techniques for post-harvest storage, how prices are determined for varying grades of produce, and developing publicity events to encourage business growth.

“In farming, more than most professions, there is no substitute for hands-on experience,” Smiley said. “The greatest compliment I can receive is being able to hand over my responsibilities to our interns for the day if need be. We were able to do this with Dustin within two months, and I think this speaks volumes about the Jacobs internship program and his personal ability.”

Once his internship ends in late October, Cutler plans to continue his education by pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Arizona in biosystems engineering. After that, he hopes to work for a company that will allow him to get more hands-on experience, before starting his own business in the field.

“Eventually, I’d like to own my own business and start creating my own systems,” he said. “The more systems I can create, the more environmental degradation I can limit and the more people we can feed.”

For veterans considering a career in agriculture, Cutler offers the following advice:

“Come with an open mind,” he said. “Come with a desire to do hard work. Try to have an open mind to the experience. Push yourself to see what opportunities there are. It might be kind of tough, but if you’re not into it, then you’re not in to it.”

Veterans interested in internship opportunities should contact FVC by phone at (530) 756-1395, or email at support@farmvetco.org.