Vilsack says next farm bill should expand outreach to veterans

By Bill Tomson

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 23, 2016 - Recruiting military veterans and youth into farming should be a major goal of the next farm bill, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said today at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event to highlight its Hiring our Heroes program.

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It's vitally important to get younger people involved with agriculture as the average age of farmers in the U.S. rises, he said, and veterans can play a significant role.

“We're going to have a conversation in 2017 and 2018 about a new farm bill and part of that farm bill is going to be a discussion of how we deal with the aging nature of our farmers.” Said the 65-year-old Vilsack. “This is a critical issue that agriculture is facing. The average age of a farmer today is 58. There are two or three more farmers that are my age or older (for each farmer) under the age of 35. So the question for this country, is who's going to farm?”

Lanon Baccam, a deputy undersecretary for USDA's Farm and Foreign Agriculture Service, also spoke at the Chamber event, noting that the military should be a proper pool for future farmers as 17 percent of service personnel come from rural America.

USDA, in a statement released today, said more than 5 million veterans live in rural areas and the department is committing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to assist those who chose to go into the agriculture sector.

Agriculture can benefit from veterans, but it's also USDA's obligation to make sure that veterans can benefit from agriculture, said Baccam, who is also USDA's liaison to military veterans.

“We know that we have a duty at USDA to take care of our service members when they get out and go home and we'll be there every step along the way,” Baccam said. “There are a lot of things we can do to help veterans in rural America.”

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One of those things is the partnership with Hiring for Heroes, as mandated in the 2014 farm bill. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce program works to match veterans with training and job openings in a wide range of fields. The USDA signed an agreement in February to make sure veterans know about opportunities in agriculture.

But more can always be done, Vilsack stressed. He said he envisioned the possibility of soldiers planting crops around military bases someday as a way to train for a farming career after they leave the service.

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