Recent combat veterans are looking for jobs. And the farming industry has them.
“We need to eat,” said Wyatt Fraas, program manager for the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska. “Everybody in this country needs to eat — there’s so much increasing demand for local and sustainably produced foods. The demand is far increasing the supply at this point — that’s a market opportunity, a job opportunity, and it’s helping people who want that food to get it.”
Fraas said starting a farm project is essentially starting a new small business, and there are many programs available to help new farmers and specifically to help veterans with the funding and business advice.
There are two free workshops coming up in Kansas for veterans and active-duty service members interested in farming — March 19 in Manhattan and March 20 in Overland Park.
Nick Levendofsky, of the Kansas Farmers Union, is coordinating the workshops.
“It’s a good opportunity for veterans because we see so many of them coming from rural areas and waiting to return to those rural areas,” Levendofsky said. “They either come from a rural area and want to return there, or some want to go to a rural area and raise their kids, so we look at that as an opportunity.”
Levendofsky said many of the veterans who have already been seeking advice with his organization are typically smaller, subsistence farmers. Those interested in farming are learning that they don’t have to do it fulltime and can supplement existing income or employment with a small farming operation. But there’s information available for those interested in large-scale farming, too.
“There’s a guy who’s raising 20 head of cattle, so it’s a pretty small operation but it’s something he’s done for a long time, and he needs to know how to market that beef,” Levendofsky said.
Another veteran has started a raspberry farm south of Topeka, Kan. Levendofsky said farming organizations can help him with information about specialty crop insurance and how to market his fruit at farmer’s markets.
These two examples are just a picture of how different small farming can be, he said.
Levendofsky said there’s so much interest in farming that two veterans from North Carolina and Chicago are flying in for the Kansas workshops.
Another of the lead organizations in the workshops is the Farmer-Veteran Coalition in Davis, Calif. The nonprofit group began in 2009 as an effort to create resources specifically for veterans who are interested in farming.
Chris Ritthaler, national veteran outreach coordinator for the Farmer-Veteran Coalition and former Marine, said active-duty, Guard and Reserve service members are also invited to participate in the workshops, farm tours, and information and help lines.
Ritthaler said that nationally, the United States needs young people to take an interest in farming. He said the average age of most farmers is over 50.
“We’re seeing a lot of these folks who are retiring, so we have a generation gap,” Ritthaler said. “These farmers are retiring not having anyone to take over the operation, so they’re selling out to commodity-based production or selling these farmlands and turning them into developments.”
Ritthaler said his organization has had contact with more than 500 veterans in 48 states, but more are becoming interested when they experience difficulty with the job market.
Ritthaler also said they’ve helped some new farmers who are in financial trouble because they don’t have a viable business plan for their farms. The organization can help with those financial issues, too. Their goal is to contact the potential farmers beforehand and help them make a business plan that works with the assistance of experienced farmers and ranchers.
“One of our major services that we provide here is an informational clearing house,” he said. “We’ve collaborated with a lot of different groups for a resource guide that’s going to have all these things in one place.”
Ritthaler also wants veterans and active-duty service members to know that they don’t have to be in top physical condition to run a farm. The Kansas AgriAbility Project, he said, is a perfect match for wounded warriors.
“It’s a project of goodwill to help disabled farmers with planning and adaptive farming, so if a farmer hurts himself, looses a limb or use of their legs, they’ll work with them on finding a way to transition their farm,” Ritthaler said. “There’s a great overlap. We’re seeing so many veterans coming back with pretty serious injuries.”
There are dozens of organizations to help first-time farmers online. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an online mentoring program, www.START2FARM.gov, the Farmer-Veteran Coalition is at www.farmvetco.org and the Center for Rural Affairs is at www.cfra.org. There’s a link with information about the Veteran Farmers Project workshops at ww.cfra.org/veteran_farmers_project.
Many of these organizations and others are scheduled to speak at the all-day March workshops. Lunch will be provided. The workshops are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 19 at Pottorff Hall, Cico Park, 1710 Avery Ave., Manhattan, Kan. (about two hours from Fort Leavenworth); and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 20 at the Capitol Federal Conference Center at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kan. (about 45 minutes from Fort Leavenworth).
Registration for the free workshop is required by March 15. To register, contact Levendofsky, at the Kansas Farmers Union, at (785) 527-0941 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.