WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, 2014 – Since the American Revolution, U.S. farmers have taken up arms to fight and serve for their country. For 95 years, the nation has honored its veterans on Nov. 11. Today, about 45 percent of members of the armed services are from rural America.

“As I've stated so often to groups around the country, rural families and agricultural families send their sons and daughters into military service and community service more frequently and in greater numbers,”  USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a keynote speech at the Commodity Classic in San Antonio earlier this year.

A recent chart from the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) shows 3.9 million veterans living in rural areas today, compared to 6.6 million just 20 years ago. However, in spite of a decline in the number of rural veterans, because they are aging in greater numbers than the general population, those who have served still make up 10 percent of the rural population.

Many of those on the farm are older vets. A November 2013 brief from the ERS shows that veterans make up one-fourth of rural retirees, but only 3 percent of rural young adults. Yet, the brief shows that returning veterans not only add to the population base and increase the demand for goods and services, but are also “well situated to take on leadership roles in rural communities,” especially in hometowns where they have relatives and have forged connections.

In spite of the contributions veterans can make in rural America, in 2011, only about 6 percent of rural veterans worked in agriculture, slightly more than rural nonveterans – and only 2 percent of veterans of the Gulf wars were in ag.

With American agriculture called upon to help feed a world population of 9 billion people by 2050, the need for farmers is indisputable. Agri-Pulse found a number of organizations aimed at steering veterans to the farm and discovered a number of private and government initiatives to provide training, marketing and financial help to soldiers wishing to return to the nation’s agrarian roots.

Programs for veteran farmers and ranchers include:  

Farmer-Veteran Coalition: The organization “helps returning veterans find employment and training on farms and ranches and in other agriculture-related careers.” As the coalition grows, it plans to “expand availability and access to farm education and acquisition programs” for vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. One way the Farmers Veteran Coalition (FVC) helps returning veterans is through its Homegrown by Heroes program, which was launched in May. This marketing program provides a distinctive label farmer-veterans can use on agricultural products at point of sale.

·       Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots: A program designed by University of Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture deans to help returning vets “enter the agricultural industry.” It plans to offer agriculture classes, job training and placement at local farms and ranches when “fully operational.”

·       Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training: A program for veterans at Cal Poly Pomona to provide training and agricultural skills “to help veterans start farms or ranches or obtain other jobs in the agricultural sector.”

·       Armed to Farm: A program that provides veterans and their spouses “an opportunity to see sustainable, profitable small-scale farming enterprises. Its blend of farm tours and hands-on experience let vets “examine farming as a viable career and … learn about the capital, labor, and risks involved in farming, as well as the return on investment that is realistically possible.”

·       Veterans Farm: A program to help veterans reintegrate back into society through a Beginning Farmer fellowship program, where veterans learn the skills and gain the education needed to start their own local farm or work for larger farming organizations.

·       Veterans to Farmers: A program “to provide American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with pride, education and fulfillment through a permanent source of sustainable income, community and contribution – the family farm.”

·       Veteran Farmers Project: A project that “provides veterans with the business and agriculture education that can help them become successful farmers” by creating sound farm businesses that tap into high value markets.

The USDA has shown its support for veterans through a number of initiatives this year, many as a result of the 2014 farm bill. They include:

Conservation Reserve Program revisions: In June, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack announced changes to the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The Transition Incentives Program (TIP) gives two additional years of CRP payments to retired farmers and ranchers if they transition expiring CRP acres to socially disadvantaged, military veteran, or beginning producers who return the land to sustainable grazing or crop production.

In a June press release, Vilsack said, “The cost of buying land is one of the biggest barriers to many interested in getting started in agriculture. The Transition Incentives Program is very useful as we work to help new farmers and ranchers get started."

Outreach and technical assistance: In July, USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden announced the availability of more than $9 million in outreach and technical assistance for veterans new to farming and ranching and to minority farmers and ranchers. The funding, though the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, known as the 2501 program, will help community-based organizations and partners work with these groups to acquire, own and operate farms and participate in USDA programs.

Jobs for veterans on forest lands: In September, Secretary Vilsack announced a $20 million investment in partnerships to support work and training opportunities in national forests and grasslands for 11,000 veterans and young people as part of the Obama administration’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative.

Expanded loan eligibility, increased limits: In early October, the USDA announced expanded eligibility parameters and increased farm lending limits to help more beginning and family farmers. With the changes, effective Nov. 7, among other skills that may be considered to meet the direct farming experience requirement for loan eligibility are leadership positions while serving in the military.

Related articles:

      Farmer Veteran Coalition recruits states to promote products ‘Homegrown by Heroes’

      Farmer Veteran Coalition launches Homegrown by Heroes label nationwide

      USDA expands beginning farmer loan program eligibility, loan limits

      USDA announces CRP sign-up, help for beginning farmers


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