Jobs for Vets, Food for All

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An organization that assists recent military veterans has an answer to the crisis caused by the aging population of farmers: they are helping returning veterans become farmers at a time when the farmer workforce is dwindling. The Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) based in Davis, California, offer their programs nationwide to recent vets. They find volunteer farmers to mentor veterans in farming, and also place vets into agricultural jobs and internships.

As explained on their web site:

“America’s farms are facing a crisis for lack of young able-bodied individuals going into agriculture.  The 2007 Census of Agriculture reveal that the average American farmer is 57 years old, up from 55 in the last Census, with two farmers retiring for every one entering the field. This staggering figure, with the increasing interest in creating more sustainable and local food systems, has created unique and exciting opportunities for beginning farmers.”

Organic farmer Nash Huber, of Nash’s Organic Produce, confirmed this trend of diminishing farmers in a conversation we had at the annual EcoFarm conference. He told me that at  conventional agricultural conferences the farmers all appear to be 65 years old and up. But he was marveling at the numbers of young people interested in organic and sustainable farming at the EcoFarm conference. Not surprisingly, thats where I met a group of young farmers and veterans from the FVC last February.

The FVC provides much needed assistance to returning vets who are interested in starting a their own farms. They help by pairing vets with farmers as mentors, since many interested vets have no farming experience.  They also assist them in accessing the unique resources available specifically for veterans. Their goal is to reduce risk for the new farmer veteran so that they have the best chance of success in their new venture in agriculture. The FVC conducts retreats, conferences, and workshops nationwide, and they have a job and internship placement program.

A Farmer Veteran Coalition retreat in Iowa, July 2011

The types of farming operations that have resulted from the program are varied: from heirloom vegetables to heritage poultry, maple syrup production, and beekeeping. Most of these farms are less than10 acres in size, and that’s for a reason. Returning veterans often don’t have the money necessary to buy land or invest in starting up a business of any type.  The fact that their farms tend to be small, even “backyard operations” is a natural outcome. But this has worked to the advantage of the veterans, explained Chris Ritthaler, National Veteran Outreach Coordinator for FVC, in our recent phone conversation. (Chris Ritthaler served in the Marine Corps from 2002-2006.)

Ritthaler told me that it’s not feasible for a returning vet to get the acreage necessary for a large operation which requires not only lots of land, but expensive equipment and infrastructure. The vets that come to FVC for help often don’t have any resources and don’t qualify for large bank loans. Instead of starting a large operation of 60 acres, farmer veterans are finding niche markets with their small farms supplying heritage poultry to chefs, or in pick-your-own vegetables (Hungry Mother Organics), or raising free range pastured chickens for eggs and meat (Across the Creek Farm), to give a few examples. There is even a veteran run organic composting company called Veteran Compost that employs vets and vet family members.

Navy veteran Kelly Carlisle started a farm with a twist. Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project  is located in inner-city Oakland California, where she grew up.  After service in the Navy she returned home with a conviction to give back to her her predominately African-American neighborhood.  I met Carlisle over dinner at the EcoFarm conference, where she told me how she discovered the extent to which city-raised children who visit her farm are disconnected from their food. One day she watched as a little girl was trying very hard to lift a rooted cabbage from the ground.  Carlisle asked the child what she was doing; her answer was that she was trying to get the cabbage off of the ground, because it obviously didn’t belong there. She had no idea that cabbages grow from a plant in the soil!

The Farmer Veteran Coalition is a small non-profit with a single office in Davis with 5 full time staff members, up from just 3 last year. They don’t have the ability for extensive outreach so they rely on word of mouth for veterans to contact them about their programs. Until they build up their funding, this scale is  appropriate for the number of vets they are currently able to assist. Their funding is primarily from private sources, and as Ritthaler told me, they “don’t have federal funds that support the organization”, only limited USDA money designated for specific programs. When I asked about other similar programs for vets, Ritthaler said that of the groups that offer assistance to vets for farm careers, FVC offers the most comprehensive program.

And indeed, it does seem to go the distance on behalf of the vets. In addition to their other programs, the FVC maintains a Farm Emergency Fund to provide financial assistance to farmer veterans and their families in emergencies, as well as a small grants program, the Fellowship Fund. The Fund assists veterans that are beginning a career in food and farming with small grants to be used for education or farming. The Fellowship Fund can also assist farmer veterans who are expanding their business, and help with buying equipment, assistance with certifications, or with purchasing building materials and labor.

We can thank our veterans for their service to our country, and now we can be thankful that they are willing to be our farmers.

Photo: Chris Ritthaler

Video: Farmer Veteran Coalition

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