'Unique club' aims to bring veterans back to the farm

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 2014 - Jamie Critelli knew he wanted to grow things since his early days visiting his uncle's greenhouse after school. 

“It was just something I enjoyed,” he said. “I never fit in while in middle school or high school, and it was therapeutic for me to get dirt under the nails, watch things grow. It helped my self-esteem.”

Critelli pursued his dream with a degree in horticulture from Cornell.  But as an undergraduate at Cornell, his career path took a different turn. Critelli joined the military through Army ROTC and was deployed to Korea, Germany and Kosovo before returning to the U.S. as a National Guard unit adviser in New York shortly after Sept. 11, and then to Iraq.

Together we can feed the Bees"

After eight years in the Army, he attended ETH, a university in Zurich, Switzerland, where he earned an MBA in supply chain management. He stayed in Switzerland working primarily for Syngenta until 2011, when he moved back to Elmira, N.Y., with a renewed quest to start a greenhouse operation.

That's where the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), which was started in 2008 by organic farm manager Michael O'Gorman, came into play. The FVC assists veterans looking for a career in farming.

“We have one mission: to bring more people into agriculture,” O'Gorman told Agri-Pulse. “We don't preach what type of agriculture.” He noted that farmers and the military each account for about the same share of the country's population.

“One percent farm and one percent are military - that's a unique club,” he said.

The FVC, based in Davis, California, has veterans in every state, with the largest groups in California, Iowa, North Carolina and New York.

This year, in addition to providing training and help with funding, the FVC will launch a national initiative, the Farm Equipment Exchange & Donation Program (FEED), in an effort to recycle old but still usable tractors and other farm machines. Instead of trading them at a loss, farmers can donate outdated or undersized equipment to new farmers involved in the coalition.

O'Gorman said at least 100 new people get involved in the coalition every month. More than 2,000 veterans are in the FVC database, a quarter of them active, as grantees, interns or participants in training programs.

“We have this dual niche: an ag industry that needs new talent and veterans that need support,” O'Gorman said. “We get to put them in touch with each other.”

Indeed, about 60 percent of U.S. growers are 55 or older, with many facing retirement and no one to take their places in the field. At the same time, military veterans - 44 percent of whom come from rural areas - are returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan and searching for careers.

It's a dynamic that caught the attention of lawmakers who forged a 2014 farm bill that now recognizes “veteran farmers” as a distinct class for many farm programs. (Information about veteran farmer provisions in the bill is summarized here by Ed Cox, staff attorney at the Agricultural Law Center of Drake Law School.)

When one of those veterans, Jamie Critelli, came back to the U.S., he was driving around the Elmira area and came across the plot for Floral Beauty Greenhouses, which had gone into bankruptcy. He contacted Farm Credit, which was handling the bankruptcy, to see about buying the property. It took two and half years, but he went from leasing to owning the operation last summer. Farm Credit's relationship with the Farmer Veteran Coalition led him to a loan that helped launch his business.

“It wasn't a huge amount-somewhere around $3,000. But it certainly helped,” he said. Farm Credit also helped him secure a loan guarantee through USDA's Farm Service Agency, and saved him almost $4,000 in fees.

Today, Floral Beauty has 10 greenhouses, up from two in 2011. Critelli recently began selling hydroponic vegetables to a local restaurant that wants more than he can grow. 

“I find my situation is similar to a lot of small, beginning businesses,” he said. “Everybody is not limited by ideas; they're limited by funding.”

Garret Dwyer, an FVC board member and Marine Corps veteran, agrees. After serving as an infantryman in Iraq in 2006-2007, he earned a degree in agricultural production from the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA) and participated in the Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots program, which assists veterans in becoming owners of farms, ranches and other businesses.

For the last four years, he's been helping run his family's 5,000 acre cow-calf operation in the Sand Hills of Nebraska and serving as the point person for veterans who want to get involved in livestock production.

Dwyer's best advice for new farmers is to contact USDA's Farm Service Agency, which helps beginners with training programs and loans. He also said partnering with an older farmer “to gain experience and learn in exchange for labor” is “extremely valuable.”

Several agricultural organizations including the Farm Credit Council, the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation serve as FVC sponsors.

“We don't have an agenda,” said O'Gorman. “We've changed lives and probably saved a few.”

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