July 7, 2016

AMERICA’S VETERANS: Moving from Battlefields to Farming Fields

It may not seem obvious, but the military and agriculture have a common bond.  The connection is based in the rural nature that is part of each.  According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there were approximately 22 million veterans in the United States in 2014 and more than five million of them lived in rural areas.  That’s not surprising especially when you factor in that a disproportionate share of active service members hail from rural areas and most return to their rural lives after their time in the service is complete.

Because so many veterans come from rural places, many have some interest in or experience related to farming.  That background, combined with the skill sets, character and discipline typically gained while serving in the armed forces, make them prime agriculture recruits.  Getting the proper training, and having access to the necessary resources to find those jobs, however, can be difficult, especially for those without strong ties to the civilian workforce.  Enter The Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC).  The FVC connects veterans with agriculture companies and organizations making it easier for them to find employment and enter the civilian work world once they have finished serving their country.


Organization Mission and Programs

While there are many local and state-based entities dedicated to introducing veterans to farming, the FVC is the only national organization of its kind servicing veterans in all 50 states and U.S. territories.  The mission of this unique non-profit organization is simple: to “cultivate a new generation of farmers and food leaders, and develop viable employment and meaningful careers through the collaboration of the farming and military communities.”  The organization believes that the meritocracy of agriculture promotes responsibility and offers purpose and opportunity, as well as physical and psychological benefits for those who wish to join its ranks.

Although rural veterans make natural recruits, the FVC will help train and place any veteran who is interested in pursuing a career in the farming.  The types of jobs are wide-ranging and are typically mid-management level or higher.  Positions can be anything from managing shipping docks and irrigation systems to overseeing food safety programs and sales departments.

The FVC promotes both self-employment and employment opportunities on a full-time or part-time basis.  With half of the veterans in the FVC program having some level of service-connected disability, for some, the money earned is a supplement to disability income.  The FVC employs a variety of tools to assist veterans, including providing resources, grant funding, education, apprenticeships, internships and training.

The organization even boasts its own Homegrown by Heroes (HBH) brand, a nationally recognized and promoted program—first developed by the Kentucky Agriculture Department and later adopted by the FVC—that provides farmer veterans with consumer visibility for their products at the point of sale.  Participants and products must provide proof of their veteran status to become certified under the label.


Organization Background

Inspired by his own life experiences and a University of New Hampshire Carsey Institute study that confirmed many military enlisted have roots in rural America, Michael O’Gorman founded the FVC to introduce veterans to agriculture.  Trends and demographics pointed to the fact that veterans generally return to rural areas across the country once they end their tours of duty.  Unfortunately, settling back into rural areas meant those veterans would likely be further removed from needed services and opportunities than their urban counterparts.  O’Gorman wanted to ease that disparity.

He left a successful 40-year career in agriculture–most recently working for Jacob Farms/Del Cabo where he managed 1,600 acres of organic fresh produce in Mexico—because he believed he could help veterans replicate his own personal experience in the industry.  While many farmers have benefited from having at least one generation of family farming experience behind them, O’Gorman started his farming career disadvantaged.  Lacking the money, land and experience to start a business, O’Gorman’s deep belief in the value of agriculture enabled him to become one of the most successful organic farmers in the country.

The FVC has more than 8,000 members nationally, including in states represented by Western Growers.  California has the largest membership of any state with approximately 800 members.  “We’ve figured out how to channel some of the bottom-up energy,” O’Gorman said, acknowledging the grassroots popularity of the organization’s efforts.

The FVC leader said that although the organization exists to help veterans, it’s the vets who often ask how they can help the organization.  According to O’Gorman, when veterans first learn about the organization, they say, “Wow! Two things that are so important to me: military and agriculture.  How can I help?”


FVC Partners and Sponsors

Many organizations, both ag and non-ag, are currently partnered with or sponsors of the FVC and provide offerings that help veterans in a variety of ways. “Our secret weapon is that we are a small organization—how it works is through partnerships.”  Collaborators such as USDA, Farm Credit, Wells Fargo, ag trade organizations and a host of private companies offer financial support, access to jobs, financial literacy training and business advice.  Their interest and desire to help those who have served our country provides O’Gorman with a strong foundation of partners with which to work.

In May, Farm Credit Vice President and FVC Chairman Gary Matteson addressed WG Board members attending the annual Washington, D.C., fly-in briefing them on the organization and its mission.  Several board members expressed an interest in working with the group.  And O’Gorman is interested in working with Western Growers.  He recognizes California and Arizona are a different type of agriculture compared to grain farming in the Midwest and said the industry is generally “employment rich” with a range of middle management jobs.

“If we were to work with Western Growers, that is what we would be interested in; how to find that work and match the skills to someone coming out of the military,” O’Gorman said.

Western Growers will explore this organization in greater depth, as well as other organizations connecting veterans with ag, in future editions of WG&S.  Contact Jeff Janas ([email protected]/(949) 885-2318) for more information about the FVC or to connect with the organization.