Training Vets to Do Sustainable Agriculture
Oftentimes soldiers returning home from overseas experience difficulty finding good jobs. The 2015 Veteran Economic Opportunity Report found that “when it comes to employment and income, veterans as a whole are faring well—employment and earnings are generally comparable to the non-veteran population.” But the report also found that “in recent years about half of all service members transitioning into civilian life have faced a period of unemployment within fifteen months.” Younger veterans are finding more challenges in obtaining good employment opportunities than older (fifty-five and above) veteran.
The statistics listed at FoodTank.com are sobering: “According to the Independent Voter Network, approximately 3.6 million veterans have a service-related disability, 7.6 percent of veterans are unemployed, and veterans make up 13 percent of the adult homeless population. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans finds that 1.4 million more are at risk of homelessness due to poverty and lack of support. Additionally, up to 20 percent of Iraqi War veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans have suffered from PTSD at some point in their life.”
However, the good news is that many programs have sprung up around the country to train veterans to work in sustainable agriculture. One such program is the Farmer Veteran Coalition, whose director, Michael O’Gorman says, “On the one hand, there is a shortage of young farmers in rural America; on the other hand, the support system and demand for locally grown and organic food are burgeoning.” O’Gorman notes that veterans are a good match for this program: “The incredible sense of hard work, self-sacrifice, and service developed in the military is perfectly suited and immediately transferable to farming. And there have never been so many opportunities for new farmers.” Matt Mccue, an Iraq war veteran, is working with the organization in Fairfield, California. “All societies work from the soil, essentially. When the soil is degraded, that is when civilizations collapse,” he says. “The farmer-soldiers I’ve met have a lot of unique tools and skill sets. People join the military because they think outside the box. There is a huge potential for former military personnel to find solutions to some of the big-picture problems and food-security issues facing society.” O’Gorman adds that it’s a win-win situation because the veterans need work and the communities need them. “And that is often what is so healing—they are heroes many times over.”
But many vets may be closer to the farming community than was first thought. A 2006 study from the Carsey Institute found that “ever increasing numbers of those enlisted in the US military had their roots in rural America.” In 2007, Michael O’Gorman held a meeting in central California to “talk about creating jobs on our farms for our returning veterans. The idea of opening up our farms—and all the beauty and peace and opportunity that they provide—to those returning from war, captivated those in attendance. The Farmer Veteran Coalition was born.” Today the organization has over 4,500 members. “Of these, 72 percent have post 9-11 service, 20 percent are ethnic minorities, 16 percent are women, and a staggering 59 percent have service connected disabilities.”
Wisconsin’s first veteran-owned and managed program, founded by Steve Acheson, who is himself a veteran, is the Peacefully Organic Produce and CSA (POPs CSA; see popscsa.com). Their mission is to provide a place where veterans of all eras can come together and be trained in organic agriculture, as they also work toward assimilating back into the general population after returning from military service. Through partnerships with local schools, technical colleges, and community-based organizations, these veterans can participate in several workshops, training seminars, and conferences while simultaneously gaining real, tangible on-farm experience, with the goal that each veteran will at some point start his or her own organic agriculture business.
After serving as a marine in Iraq for ten years, Ryan Erisman returned to take up organic farming near Madison, Wisconsin, on the family farm. Erisman says localism is important too. “We need to revive local economy—a village system—where you know your neighbors and purchase stuff from your neighbors and we can feed ourselves.” Even though he had grown up on an organic farm, it wasn’t what he had intended to do after the marines, but certain experiences while being a marine made him start thinking about it. He notes, “Oddly enough the first impetus of raising my own food and farming came from working rural villages in Iraq. Living that way, marines didn’t have access to hot food, they were either eating the packages “MREs” and then the supplemental food was essentially gas station snacks: Honeybuns, Otis Spunkmyre muffins. Just nasty stuff, soda, Gatorade. Just for being around and protecting their villages, people would, you know, they would come and they would feed us. So marines very quickly figured out, the best way to eat was to go on patrol. And we ate the food right out of the gardens. When we’d have a big meeting, you’d see an older woman and two boys escort a couple sheep across the yard and we would be like “well I know what lunch is gonna be.” But it was really seeing that, that made me start thinking about subsistence, and sustainable farming and you know, how you support yourself, by watching the Iraqis.” Erisman is Midwest Regional Ambassador for the Farmers Veteran Coalition, networking with regional veterans to give them educational opportunities, including attending the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service’s (MOSES) annual conference in La Crosse.
Participating in these programs has been very healing for the veteran-farmers. The Freedom Farms for Vets, outside Chicago, a five-acre property, founded by John Ress, provides opportunities for active-duty soldiers and veterans to garden, work in a woodshop, and care for horses, with the mission to alleviate PTSD through farming and positive surroundings. One former navy service member says, “It calmed me down quite a bit. It helped me get my motor skills and memory back. And it keeps your mind off of things.” Ress, though not a psychologist, did grow up on a farm. He saw that relatives returning from war were helped by doing farm work. He started the nonprofit in2010 so that other veterans could have a similar healing experience. “Farming is so beneficial for post-traumatic stress because veterans can see the progress in what they’ve done,” Ress says. “There’s a direct correlation between planting and starting over in life. They plant the seed, they watch the seed start to grow, then they bear the fruit of what they did. It really is self-help,” he adds.
Another program for veteran-farmers is the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT), founded by Colin and Karen Arechipley with the goal of helping fellow veterans learn agribusiness, giving them a new start. Since 2006, their program has had over 200 graduates, with about half of them going on to start their own agriculture business. Through partnerships with Denver Botanic Gardens—Chatfield, Colorado Aquaponics, Rebel Farms, and others, Veterans to Farmers is training veterans in organic soil agriculture, aquaponics, and aeroponic and hydroponic growing techniques, greenhouse maintenance and construction, and business ownership. These partnerships also serve as a community amenity; the food grown at these farms is sold direct to the community and to local supermarkets and restaurants. -JC
For a list and links of twenty-one veteran-farmer projects (including two outside the United States) go to http://foodtank.com/news/2014/11/veterans-day.www.benefits.va.gov/benefits/docVeteranEconomicOpportunityReport2015.PDF. www.veteranstofarmers.org.Sources: Billock, Jennifer. “The Farm that Heals,” Eatingwell.com, November/December 2015. Farmer Veteran Coalition. “History of the Farmer Veteran Coalition,” www.farmvetco.org/about- us/history/. Kimble-Evans, Amanda. www.rodalesorganiclife.com, “Veteran Soldiers Become Novice Farmers,” November 26, 2010. Nierenberg, Danielle, Kelsey Kober, and Emma Shorr. “21 Projects Helping Vets through Food and Agriculture,” Food Tank, November 10, 2014. http://foodtank.com/news/2014/11/veterans-day www.benefits.va.gov/benefits/docVeteranEconomicOpportunityReport2015.PDF www.veteranstofarmers.org