While some veterans return home to jobs, many are returning to rural areas where jobs can be scarce. USDA's Risk Management Agency has awarded the Center for Rural Affairs, Farmer-Veteran Coalition, Nebraska AgrAbility Project and eight additional partner organizations with funding to introduce new veteran farmers and ranchers to various areas of agriculture,.
"The long-term goal for this project is to help new veteran farmers and ranchers successfully establish farms and ranches in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Missouri," says Kathie Starkweather with the Center for Rural Affairs.
"Farmers Union is thrilled to be able to offer assistance to returning veterans. No one is more deserving of spending a rewarding life on the land than those who have willingly helped to defend the United States of America," according Richard Oswald, President of Missouri Farmers Union. "We will do our best to repay them."
Starkweather says the project will allow veterans to develop plans for farm/ranch start-up, including financing, land access, and business development. Veterans will also learn to access the resources available to them for technical assistance, production and marketing information, and mentoring.
Rural America has experienced a chronic exodus of family farmers and ranchers out of agriculture. That fact, coupled with a lack of young families going into agriculture, has changed the landscape of much of rural America, physically and demographically. The 2007 Census of Agriculture revealed that the average American farmer is 57 years old and climbing, with 35% of all farmers over age 65.
Rural America's small cities and towns are, however, less prepared to absorb returning veterans than many urban centers, Starkweather. The Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America have noted that veterans returning to rural communities were having the hardest time reintegrating into civilian life as these communities lacked both viable employment opportunities and access to needed veteran services. The Carsey Institute noted that only 24% of employed young adults, ages 18 to 24, hold full-time jobs in rural communities.
Starkweather says several of these economic and demographic challenges may also be opportunities. Farmers who are at or approaching retirement age control half of all farm and ranch land in rural America, meaning that most of those farmers and ranchers will be looking for ways to transition their operation into younger hands in the not-too-distant future. Traditional rural employment in farming, logging, mining, fishing and small manufacturing have been declining for decades.
Nonetheless, the smallest of farms have increased in the past decade, coinciding with the growing consumer interest in locally grown, organic and specialty foods, she adds. This demand creates unique and exciting opportunities for beginning farmers and the veterans who would become farmers.
"The participation rate of young rural Americans in the military is and has been far above the national average for at least two decades. When veterans receive training and secure agricultural employment in rural communities, rural America is strengthened, all of America is strengthened," says Starkweather.
According to the grant application, veterans can build on their discipline and sense of service and use farming or ranching to reintegrate into society gracefully and fruitfully. They can also repopulate and re-energize rural communities. Some assistance to launch a new generation of veteran farmers and ranchers can help ensure their successful entry into farming and ranching and a successful return to their country.
The Center for Rural Affairs and its partner organizations will hold educational workshops in Nebraska and Kansas to provide information and introduce resources on specialty crops, livestock, land access, financing, crop insurance, production and marketing high value crops, and resources for beginners, veterans and the disabled.
The project will also include farm tours of sustainable grain, vegetable and livestock operations, as well as presentations on organic certification, production techniques and marketing.
For more information on beginning farmer and rancher programs and for future developments of this project, go to www.cfra.org/renewrural/farm. The organizations partnering in this project are the Center for Rural Affairs, Farmer-Veteran Coalition, Swords to Plowshares, Kansas Farmers Union, Missouri Farmers Union, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Kansas AgrAbility Project, Nebraska AgrAbility Project, and Missouri AgrAbility Project.