Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
After 21 years of military service, retired Lt. Col. Rob Ober is ready to return to his roots of family farming as he prepares to take over his father-in-law’s farm in Alden, Kan., with one main goal in mind.
“I’d like to keep it going as a generational family farm,” Ober said. “We’re not going to be multi-millionaires at any point in time, but the family farm is an American tradition just like the military. We need to bring that back.”
That’s why April Valley Farms in rural Leavenworth County, a three-generation farm, was the perfect place for him to refresh his farming skills and learn about new government regulations and technology during a pilot internship with the Soldier for Life – Transition Assistance Program’s new Department of Defense SkillBridge program, which helps transitioning veterans like Ober connect with career training opportunities.
“Four years ago, a group of veterans from Farmer Veteran Coalition went to the U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarters and the secretary (of Agriculture) asked, ‘How did you all get into agriculture?’” said retired Col. Ken DeVan, president of the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Kansas. “We all stumbled into it because there was no gateway back into agriculture (from active-duty service).”
Thus, the discussions began about changing that.
“Here in Kansas alone, agriculture is the No. 1 employer, and over 57 percent of the military comes from a rural background,” DeVan said. “If more than half the military comes from a rural background, why not when they leave the service help them get back to the farm? That could be the seed corn for the next farmers, and we can continue to be the country that … feeds the world.”
From there, connections were made with SFL-TAP programs throughout the military, including Fort Leavenworth’s program.
“I was enthusiastic when I was first approached about this internship. The Department of Agriculture and the Soldier for Life – Transition Assistance Program have been collaborating for quite some time to get transitioning soldiers into agriculture-related fields,” said Brett Rosene, SFL-TAP transition services manager. “Working with the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Kansas greatly enhanced our staff’s knowledge of the various opportunities in agriculture that are available. … Many of the smaller farm operations don’t have any sort of continuity plan since the younger generation is moving away. This leaves plenty of options for our transitioning military to step in and learn a meaningful field that can support them and their families after separation.”
It was through DeVan, the FVC and SFL-TAP that Ober was connected with April Valley Farms.
“The Theises have been farming for 60-plus years,” DeVan said. “You don’t survive that long unless you know what you’re doing.”
The multi-generation farm was started in April 1956 by Ed and Alice Theis, which they now co-own with three of their sons, Mark, Larry and Jerry Theis. Additionally, several other members of the family help with the day-to-day operations.
“Their farm is highly successful. It is known throughout the state,” Ober said. “They have their hiccups, as we all do, but it works, and they do a great job.”
From March to April, Ober assisted with the cattle and the hogs, and applied fertilizer for the corn crop once the ground was dry enough after heavy spring rains. He also learned about the legal and financial aspects of the operation.
“Agriculture has changed and gotten more complicated than it ever was before. There are (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) qualifications we have to have for the livestock, permits you have to have to do things, tests you have to take to buy chemicals,” said Larry Theis, Ober’s supervisor.
“Then, it is a simple thing, but probably the biggest thing he learned more than anything was the mass purchasing. When to purchase seed. When to get the best cash discounts,” Theis said. “You need to know your farms. You need to know your soils. You need to buy the right variety to match that to get the mass production.”
Ober learned it all, obtained the necessary licenses, established a limited liability company and, in the fall, will be ready to operate Fair Plains Farm, named after his father-in-law Charles Fair. The farm’s focus will be on growing wheat and milo sorghum, and raising cattle
“He was outstanding help, and he is going to be very successful,” Theis said. “He has thought this all out, and he has quite a plan.”
Ober said he loved everything about the internship.
“This internship is not one where you’re going to show up and sit down. These internships, you’re in there, you’re getting bloody, you’re getting wet, you’re getting muddy, you’re going to be dog tired,” Ober said. “You’re going to be exhausted physically and mentally when you get home, and then you’re going to want to go back and get some more. It’s great.”
Now, with his internship complete, Ober said he has advice for any service member interested in the SkillBridge.
“Make sure that there is a fine line between being an intern to being just a farm hand. It is too easy to slip into,” Ober said. “You (have) got to learn the business perspective of it. Listen to what they’re saying, ask the questions that you need to, and learn the business side of it on how to do it.
“I had a great opportunity because not everybody is going to let you stand there and watch them do their finances,” he said, “so it is a special kind of family that (April Valley Farms) is doing that.”
Now, as he prepares to start his own farm operations, Ober said he hopes to return the favor.
“I want to be able to help another vet at some point in time,” Ober said. “My goal is be fully operational and have somebody like me come out and have him or her get the same experience I did.”
For more information about the SkillBridge program or any of the other SFL-TAP programs, call Rosene at 684-2590 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.