In turn, an increasing number of opportunities as well as organizations working to support veteran transitions into agriculture have developed as well. Warren County Extension Educator, Juliette Enfield takes a closer look at what Pennsylvania agriculture has to offer our veterans.
When military personnel are discharged, they often find themselves wondering what to do next. Sometimes they return home with mental or physical disabilities, which makes finding employment much more challenging. I spoke with Mimi Thomas-Brooker, the Pennsylvania Farmer Veteran Project Director about why veterans could be a good fit for agriculture. She told me that in the service veterans learn the importance of dependability, they are used to having purposeful work, and they are used to having to be on duty 24 hours a day.
These are all qualities that are synonymous with agriculture. She also mentioned that the agricultural setting does not present triggers for post-traumatic stress disorder as other settings might. Lyndsey Antanitis of the Rodale Institute told me that, "Veterans are a great choice for an organic agriculture career because they already possess the skills needed for this labor intensive life-style."
Forty one percent of veterans reside in rural America1. In rural areas, finding gainful employment can be difficult, however, access to land is easier than it is in more urban areas. Of the many organizations across the country that offer job training assistance to veterans, few of them offered agricultural training until recently. In Pennsylvania there are short to long term apprenticeships available in organic or conventional agriculture. Veterans can also access loans and smaller amounts of funding for their farm business from non-profit agencies whose mission is to support veteran farmers. There is even a label that veterans can use on their farm products to let consumers know a part of their history.
The Pennsylvania Farmer Veteran Project was officially launched just recently - in January 2017, with the support of the Westmoreland County Conservation District. The project aims to connect veterans with farmer mentors. On their website there are job listings for paid on-farm apprenticeship positions for veterans. The Project seeks to build a network of farmer mentors and veterans who wish to learn how to farm. Through the Project, the apprenticeship positions are approved for use with GI Bill benefits, which could provide additional financial assistance such as a housing stipend. By participating in the Pennsylvania Farmer Veteran Project, farmer mentors may be eligible to get a tax credit for employing a veteran.
The Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA is committed to helping veterans who are seeking employment in organic agriculture. They have two training programs that veterans can participate in. In partnership with Delaware Valley University, they offer a 3 semester college credit Organic Farming Certificate Program, for veterans and civilians. For the first two semesters in the fall and spring, program participants take classes at Delaware Valley University in organic agriculture. For the third semester in the summer, they work on the Rodale farm, where they can learn how to grow vegetables and medicinal herbs, raise livestock, grow small grains, and conduct on-farm research. Veterans can use GI Bill benefits to help pay for tuition in this program and DelVal is a Yellow Ribbon University. Upon completion of the program, class participants receive a certificate in organic farming from the Rodale Institute, and they can join one of three incubator farms in Pennsylvania: Horn Farm Center in York, Common Ground Farm and Retreat in Kempton, or the Seed Farm in Emmaus. Rodale will also provide some funding to graduates of the program to help them get their business started.
As of 2 years ago, the Rodale Institute started offering an alternative to the Organic Farming Certificate Program for veterans who wanted a shortened training program. They now offer to train veterans in a 2 month intensive apprenticeship program called the Veteran Farmer Training Program. This is a paid, hands-on apprenticeship position at Rodale farm, very similar to the Organic Farming Certificate Program. Applicants for this program must have been honorably discharged from military service and have a passion to learn about organic farming. Apprentices receive a housing stipend and a living wage throughout the program.
The Farm Service Agency provides low interest loans for farm businesses and will give preferential treatment to veterans over non veterans if funds are short. The Farm Service Agency has farm business loans, operating loans, and microloans. Farm business loans are for up to $300,000 and can be used for purchasing land or buildings. Operating loans are for up to $300,000 and can be used for operating expenses such as livestock and equipment purchases. Microloans are for up to $50,000 and are a great way for new farmers who have small businesses to build credit and get their business started.
Networking & Marketing
The Farmer Veteran Coalition is a national organization based in California that helps farmers connect with resources to grow and market their farm business. According to Emily Schmidt, Veteran Outreach Coordinator, the organization started in 2008 and today has 11,000 members across the U.S. The Farmer Veteran Coalition has conferences every year and there are seven chapters across the country. Membership is free and members have access to agricultural business planning assistance, free legal advice from a lawyer on staff, and can apply for a $5,000 fellowship award for their farm business.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition has also developed a label called Homegrown by Heroes which helps to promote farm products made by veterans. Any Coalition member can apply for this label. The label can be used on a farm or farmers market sign, on the label of a value added product such as jam or salsa, or as a sticker on produce. Businesses that use this label must be 50% veteran owned and value added products must have 50% of their ingredients produced by a veteran. As a partnership with the PA Department of Agriculture, Farmer Veteran Coalition members are also able to use this label in combination with the PA Preferred label if they meet the criteria of the PA Preferred Program.
For veterans who want to learn how to farm, there are many mentorship opportunities in Pennsylvania. There are also face-to-face and virtual networking opportunities for veteran farmers. There has never been a better time than now for veterans to learn about farming in Pennsylvania, for existing farmers to reach out to veterans as potential new hires, and for veteran farmers to tell their story through the farm products they grow or bring to market.
1United States Department of Veteran Affairs. Characteristics of Rural Veterans 2010: Data from the American Community Survey. July 2012. Accessed May 31, 2017.