WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2017 - For years, USDA made one of its missions to work with military veterans. Now the department is closing in on one of its biggest successes as the Obama administration comes to an end.
About two weeks ago, Lanon Baccam, a USDA deputy under secretary, the department’s military liaison and an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005, made a formal pitch to the Defense Department to officially include the Agriculture Department in its Transition Assistance Program (TAP), an initiative that works with soldiers about to re-enter civilian life.
USDA actively recruits veterans, takes part in panel discussions and generally does what it can to help, but to become a significant player the department needs to become a “policy partner” with Defense in TAP, which works with military people before they leave the service, Baccam said in an interview.
“The pitch is this,” Baccam said, describing his message to the Pentagon’s Senior Steering Group (SSG): “Right now TAP focuses on three key pillars: education, entrepreneurship and employment. In ag we cover each of those areas. We have a piece of all of them in a space that has huge potential. When you overlay that with the fact that most (military) recruits come from rural America, we have a significant percentage of these guys that we need to take care of.”
Baccam argued that other government entities, like the Labor and Education departments and the Small Business Administration, lack the resources to help veterans enter the massive agriculture workforce, which includes so much more than just farming, while USDA can open those doors in the government or private sector, Baccam said.
“When you’ve got 60,000 high-paying jobs that require ag degrees, but only 35,000 people to fill them, there’s huge potential there for these military veterans,” he said.
The meeting with the SSG went well, Baccam said, but Baccam likely won’t be around for the next phase of the effort to join TAP. Baccam is a political appointee and he’ll be out of a job Friday when the Trump administration takes over. Still, whoever the Trump team installs as the next USDA military liaison will have a date in February with an executive group of leaders at the Pentagon who could finalize the process.
Lisa Benson, director of rural development for the American Farm Bureau Federation, agrees about TAP’s potential. If the USDA were to join TAP, allowing the department to reach soldiers before they are returned to civilian society, it could be great for agriculture, she said.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Benson said. “It’s a great time to connect with veterans. A lot of times when we connect with veterans, they have already re-entered civilian life and may have been struggling on their own. TAP is a great program to get folks introduced to new careers (before) they get out. There’s a lot of opportunities in ag and you have to teach people about what’s out there for them to even know it’s an option.”
Benson said the Farm Bureau’s Patriot Project – which provides mentors for veteran farmers – continues to help veterans who have already decided to try to make a living by farming, but the USDA’s reach through TAP could help steer exiting soldiers into the agriculture sector.
The benefit isn’t just for the soldiers, Benson said. The agriculture sector will be much better off with more veterans, who are used to working long hours and making tough decisions in what can be a grueling profession.
“I’m excited and the Farm Bureau sees the benefit of having veterans turn to agriculture because they share a lot of the same personality traits as farmers,” she said. “They have a strong work ethic, they’re good at figuring out problems on their own, they work really, really hard. They get up early and work all day.”
Damon Helton, owner of The Farm at Barefoot Bend in Benton, Arkansas, told Agri-Pulse he has long been advocating for USDA to officially join the TAP program. Helton, who served four tours in Afghanistan and one tour in Iraq as an Army Ranger and now raises cattle, swine and chickens, gives USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service credit for helping him get into sustainable ranching after he bought his land in Arkansas.
Soldiers have a transition period in which they can take classes and prepare for what they want to do when they leave the military, Helton said, and USDA should be involved, helping them to join the farming sector if that’s what they want.
Farming is the only thing that could fulfill him after his time in the military, said Helton, who was one of the first participants in the Farm Bureau’s Patriot Project.
“There’s a healing benefit to soldiers to get out and work on the land and get back into a routine … ,” Helton said. “At the end of the day I can see my accomplishments. It’s an amazing transition.”
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