Veterans group harvests new or returning farmers

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, February 1, 2012 -U.S. military members coming home from war zones without a job and an uncertain future are being encouraged to consider farming as a career. For many, it's what they grew up doing.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack rarely finishes a public speech without talking about the disproportionate sacrifice rural families have made since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He points out that approximately 40% of the nation's military and a substantial number of the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are from rural America.

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“There are a lot of groups that help veterans but there's really no other national group that's yet really reached out specifically around agriculture, and it's the veterans from these small, rural communities that have the least employment opportunity and, in many cases, the least services and more isolation,” said Michael O'Gorman, founder of the Davis, Calif.-based Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC).

Formed in 2009, the coalition seeks to simultaneously assist the farming community by developing a new generation of farmers and to help returning vets find viable careers and means to heal on America's farms, according to a statement posted on its website, .

FVC makes veterans aware of the opportunities available in agriculture, conducts educational retreats and provides direct assistance to help them get started in farming.

“One of the skills we need the most help with is somebody that can just sit with a veteran who has an idea about farming but needs help figuring out how to get it into a business plan,” O'Gorman, formerly an organic vegetable grower, said in interview with Agri-Pulse.

The non-profit organization is funded by donations. It has raised $1.2 million so far and has five full-time and two part-time employees. They've worked with over 500 vets in 46 states and “200 to 300 of them” have continued to pursue agriculture and keep in touch with the FVC, according to O'Gorman. Thirty-year-old Terrell Spencer is one of the beneficiaries. The former Army machine gunner in Iraq and his wife raise pastured poultry on 34 acres they own in West Fork, Ark., and are in negotiations to lease 20 more. They also sell seasoned hardwood by the rick and cord.  Injured while escorting a military convoy, Spencer said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome and came home “with a lot of anger issues and had problems with the VA.

“The farm was pretty critical. It was a vehicle for me to kind of transition and flush a lot of the stuff out from the war and just become a civilian again,” he told Agri-Pulse. Through his involvement with the FCV, Spencer received a $5,000 grant from the Bob Woodruff Foundation to help purchase equipment he uses on his farm. He sells chicken year-round to restaurants and grocery stores located in nearby Fayetteville. One customer orders 180 broilers from him every two weeks.

“We started off with a little, which is the way we suggest for new farmers; we made our mistakes on a small scale, found out what works and what didn't, and now we're growing,” he explained.

In addition to farming, Spencer volunteers with the FCV.

“I talk with guys all the time, guys that outranked me quite a bit when I was in the service, who need advice,” he said with a smile. “They're looking at starting off where I was four years ago (and) come from different places and have different experiences. But we have one thing in common: there's an instant level of trust.”

Spencer hosted a workshop on his farm last year for interested vets. “Working with other vets ‑ that understand, that you don't have to explain your problems to ‑ in a vehicle for healing like farming, it's nice,” he said.



Original story printed in February 1, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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