By STAN MADDUX
WASHINGTON D.C. — The USDA is renewing its commitment to help military veterans return to or break into farming, which also helps fills a need for new blood, with the average age of a farmer now close to 60, and meeting growth in demand for locally grown produce.
For 2019, USDA has pledged $9.4 million in grants for enhanced training, outreach and technical assistance for disabled veterans and current farmers and ranchers needing help to overcome health challenges to stay productive.
The funding is available through USDA’s Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program. The program, created through the 1990 farm bill, is managed by the USDA office of Partnerships and Public Engagement.
Military veterans were added to the program under the 2014 farm bill. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said the latest allocation of funding illustrates the ongoing commitment to help veterans and the disadvantaged.
“From the beginning of this administration, USDA has focused on increasing rural prosperity and how to best serve our veterans and underserved farmers and ranchers,” he said.
The grants are awarded to higher education institutes and nonprofit organizations. Those groups use that money on things like helping secure the financing required to get into farming, job skills training and acquiring the special equipment necessary for someone with a mental or physical disability to be productive.
AgrAbility, a not-for-profit group in 20 states, receives USDA dollars to do just that. Cindy Chastain, a veteran outreach coordinator for the Purdue University-based organization, said a good percentage of veterans not able or wanting to return to their old jobs choose farming.
She said some veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, become interested in farming to have a more peaceful work environment. There are others who prefer being their own boss, with a more flexible schedule.
However, Chastain said most veterans starting out have no prior experience or roots in farming. Part of the USDA funding helps provide training for learning the skills to become successful.
“We don’t want them to go into farming for strictly therapeutic reasons and lose their shirt. We try to help them make money at it as well,” Chastain explained.
She said AgrAbility also helps farmers with disabilities who have not served in the military. Visiting farms to assess what has to be done to overcome limitations and financial assistance to purchase the handicapped-friendly equipment and technology are just some of the services of her organization.
“They can help somebody with arthritis in their hand who needs help holding on to a tool, all the way up to lifts to get people into combines,” Chastain said.
She said AgrAbility has a presence at farm shows and hosts webinars as part of its outreach. Referrals are also made from groups like the Farm Service Agency and Resource Consulting Services (RCS).
Another organization involved in the effort with backing from USDA is the Veteran Farmer Coalition. The California-based group has locations in 11 other states, including Indiana and Michigan.
Michael O’Gorman retired after 40 years as a vegetable grower to start the organization in 2007, after seeing a need from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He said many are from rural areas and even if they never farmed, they have done work for a grandfather or uncle that has or still does.
O’Gorman said other built-in qualities like willingness to work hard, determination, resilience and a “stand up when you get knocked down” attitude positions a typical veteran well for agriculture.
“It requires both mental and physical exertion. Surprisingly, it’s the challenge of it that’s part of the attraction,” he said.
O’Gorman said farming presents opportunity for veterans who can help fill the higher demand for locally grown produce. There’s also a shortage of farmers caused by new ones mostly coming from existing farms and little outside recruitment.
“The country’s never really produced new farmers before. Mostly it’s giving birth to them. So, we’re at this unique place where we need more farmers,” O’Gorman noted.
There have been other initiatives to help veteran growers. A program managed by the Veteran Farmer Coalition, as an example, places “Homegrown By Heroes” labels on veteran-grown produce sold in local markets. The program started in Kentucky is now in 49 states.
A list of the USDA grants is online at www.outreach.usda.gov/grants/fy18-2501-grants.pdf