December 28, 2016
Jessie Scott | Agriculture.com
The movement to mobilize veterans to feed America is growing. This month in Michigan, the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) hosted its third conference where 250 farmer veterans came together for educational sessions, farm visits, and panels on resources available through the government and nonprofit groups. The conference has grown greatly from the first conference in 2014, where about 100 veterans gathered in Iowa.
The FVC has also seen steady growth. In the past year, 3,400 farmer veterans have joined the organization. Total membership for the group is now over 8,000.
“Our national conferences have been invaluable to building this important farmer veteran movement,” says Michael O’Gorman, FVC executive director who started the organization in 2008 out of the back of his pickup truck. “We’ve seen dialog launched between our federal partners turn into national policy. We’ve seen important insight into what makes farming healing for veterans turn into valuable research. And we’ve seen the veterans themselves form a supportive community that has helped them immensely in their individual endeavors.”
Improving Path from Veteran to Farmer
A key point of discussion at the conference was finding ways to make it easier for veterans interested in farming to get started.
“There’s a gap in how you can go from an active-duty service member to a farmer,” says Mike Miller, from the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Transition to Veterans Program office. “We’ve solved that in trucking, in technology, and other industries. But we haven’t solved it in the farming arena.”
Every year, 200,000 people transition out of the military. The DOD works will all of these veterans “to prepare them better as they transition to be valuable members of the workplace,” says Miller. “And we are working to develop an improved process for the transition,” which includes forming partnerships with multiple federal agencies, including the USDA.
Collaboration between the agencies is critical “to create a more streamlined path for folks to participate,” says Lanon Baccam, the USDA Military Veterans Agricultural Liaison. “The USDA focuses on making sure that all veterans who want to get into farming have access to programs and that we are able to help them navigate how to use them.”
For that starting point for veterans, USDA has created a microsite at usda.gov/veterans that highlights the resources available through the USDA. Veterans are given special preferences, priorities, and incentives for some programs, increasing a veteran’s access to capital through the USDA’s farm ownership loans, operating loans, microloans, and farm storage facility loans. The USDA also provides first priority to beginning, veteran, or underserved farmers to purchase USDA-owned land or land transitioning out of CRP. In addition, the USDA also has grants available to develop business plans or for marketing products.
The FVC’s work has been a key part in expanding the opportunities available to veterans through the USDA. O’Gorman worked with members of the Senate Agriculture Committee while the 2014 Farm Bill was shaped. The Military Veterans Ag Liaison position and the microloan program with priority given to veterans both came out of these conversations.
The FVC also has its own programs available to farmer veterans. The Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund provides funding to veterans in their beginning years of farming to purchase critical items for the farming operation, such as tractors. Each grant awarded is given in the name of its sponsor; sponsors include the Bob Woodruff Foundation, Newman’s Own Foundation, Prairie Grove Farms, Prudential Financial, and Kubota Tractor Corporation.
Since the program’s launch in 2011, the fund has provided more than $1 million to 150 veterans. To apply for the fund, farmer veterans must submit a business plan.
“We want the veterans to have realistic expectations about farming,” says Gary Matteson, president of the FVC board of directors and the VP for young, beginning, and small farmer programs at Farm Credit Council. “That’s why Farm Credit is such a good partner for the FVC, because of the business mind-set the FVC has.”
In addition to serving on the FVC board and providing guidance to the organization, Farm Credit has also financially supported the FVC’s Homegrown By Heroes (HBH) initiative for the past four years. At the conference, Farm Credit announced another $200,000 donation.
HBH is a national labeling service that allows farmers who have served or are still serving to use the program’s logo on their ag products and business signs, allowing consumers to select products that support our nation’s farmer veterans.
“The veterans in our network are getting a well-deserved boost from using the HBH label on their product,” says O’Gorman.