Veterans, advocates lobby for transition farming programs

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, April 5, 2016 - A wounded warrior turned farmer, his teacher and a USDA under secretary met with members of the Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday to make their case for programs that get veterans farming.

President Obama's fiscal 2017 budget proposal lays out about $246 million in mandatory and discretionary budget authority for new and beginning farmers and ranchers, including veterans - an increase of $46 million over the fiscal 2016 enacted level.

Lanon Baccam, USDA deputy under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, testified that the increase in funding would come in the form of additional direct operating and guaranteed loans to farmers who served in the military, and a certified training program that will prequalify veterans for FSA farm ownership loans.

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Some $23 million of those funds will support outreach and coordination activities and a new competitive Food and Agriculture Resilience Program for Military Veterans (FARM-Vets), administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, he added.

“FARM-Vets funding will be used to promote competition for basic and applied research that explores career opportunities and pathways, therapeutic interventions, resource conservation, and related studies for the veteran population in the food and agriculture sector,” Baccam said.

John Ulrick, a 32-year Army veteran now farming in Minnesota, testified that these military-to-farming transition programs work. “Years ago, when I was a kid, everybody said, ‘It can't be done. You can't start a farm.' Well, it can be done. And I proved it,” he said.

Ulrick started taking farming classes - the first of which centered on keeping honey bees - while at a wounded warrior unit at Fort Riley, Kansas. He said the class helped him “to think about something positive and learn something new.”

After a few weeks of working with his teacher, Gary LaGrange, another witness at the hearing and president of the Service-member Agricultural Vocation Education (SAVE) Farm, Ulrick said he was convinced that an education in farming “would rebuild healthy lives” for veterans.

LaGrange said the design for the SAVE teaching farm was developed by soldiers - like Ulrick - as well as farmers, and graduate students, professors and extension specialists from Kansas State University.

“Our vision and plan is to develop a model training farm that can be replicated on all land grant universities that will graduate hundreds of new farmers each year,” LaGrange testified. The SAVE Farm itself will ultimately incorporate about 155 acres of orchards, produce gardens, bee colonies, row crops and land on which to raise livestock and poultry about four miles from Kansas State.

“Veteran and service-member students will learn a wide variety of farming skills in a relatively short period of time,” he said. “Those in need of clinical care, physically or psychologically, will have an on-campus clinic to assist them in their transition” and will be matched with “a mentor farmer interested in hiring a farm worker or selling his farm.”

A pilot beekeeping program that has had over 50 soldier participants has been running on the SAVE property in Manhattan, Kansas, since January 2013. The program and its planned expansion will be funded through private donations, Kansas State, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense (DoD), and USDA programs.

Since 2009, USDA has provided $466.8 million in loans to help nearly 4,000 veterans buy farmland and equipment, and make farm repairs and upgrades. Other USDA programs provide housing loans, job training and financial assistance for veterans - all of which are detailed in the department's Veterans in Agriculture resource booklet and on USDA's website for veterans and new farmers.  

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Last year, USDA teamed up with the DoD's Transition Assistance Program to reach more military veterans and their families with information about USDA programs. And this February, USDA joined with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation to reach even more veterans and their families through the foundation's “Hiring for Heroes” initiative.

Baccam, a veteran himself, said USDA's partnership with the Hiring for Heroes program “is huge for us.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and DoD put on “the premier job fairs for veterans,” he continued, so teaming up with them means USDA “can introduce agriculture face-to-face” with current military members or recent veterans.

At USDA's debut ag workshop at one of these job fairs - sometimes called “transition summits” - in El Paso, Texas, “it was standing room only.”

“People were lined up outside the door trying to get in to see our presentation. Our workshop was the second most well-attended workshop (behind) only law enforcement. That tells me there's huge interest. That the veterans - they really want it.”

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