Growing Change — Farmer Veteran Coalition

From serving the nation in the military to serving the nation food and fiber, many U.S. veterans are returning from combat to jobs in agriculture. Farming—with its taxing schedule and intense physical labor demands—is a good fit for such a hardworking and dedicated group.

Today, there are over 23 million veterans in the United States. Agriculture can provide an important source of income for veterans, particularly at a time when unemployment rates have skyrocketed. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, throughout 2012 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent—compared to about 7.9 percent for the general U.S. population. Particularly hard hit are female post-9/11 veterans with an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent. All in all, there are more than 200,000 unemployed Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in this country.

That’s where the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) comes in. Their mission is to mobilize veterans to work in sustainable farming jobs, creating a smooth transition into civilian life. Michael O’Gorman founded the organization and is its current leader, with 40-plus years under his belt as an organic farmer. He started FVC because of two converging trends: the aging farmer population in the U.S., and the high unemployment rate of veterans. Helping recent veterans find farming jobs hit the two issues with one stone, and FVC was created in 2008. The organization has taken off and now works with 1,000 veterans in 48 states.

Farmer Veteran Coalition

Tia Christopher is chief of staff at FVC. She says that while some of the organization’s veterans grew up on farms or have an agricultural connection, this is not universally the case. “Some of them get a brilliant idea that they want to be farmers, even though they have no experience whatsoever,” she says. They come from different professional backgrounds, geographic locations and military experiences. FVC finds a unique opportunity for each returning veteran through one of its many programs.

FVC is chock full of programming, from farm retreats, to financial planning and business courses, to a small grants program that helps aspiring farmer veterans build up their initial infrastructure. Another FVC program is the farm equipment exchange and donation program, or FEED, where individuals or dealers can donate used or new farm equipment to the organization. This equipment is given to disabled or financially challenged veteran farmers.

The FVC staff members represent all of the military branches (except for the Coast Guard). Being veterans themselves makes the organization’s work personal. “For us as veterans they’re our peers, they’re our brothers and sisters and so we really care about the people who contact us,” Tia says. This dedication and passion shows with each and every veteran they help.

One veteran in particular who stands out for Tia is Mickey Clayton, a single mother who is half Lakota Indian and half Puerto Rican. She is also an Army combat veteran who sustained a severe leg injury in Iraq. Having grown up on a South Dakota reservation among sheep, Mickey became mesmerized by the nomadic Awassi sheepherders in Iraq. Upon returning home, she decided to start a farm with FVC’s help. Now Mickey raises unusual breeds—that garner higher prices—like Navajo-Churro Sheep and Muscovy Ducks on Dot Ranch in Northwestern Oregon. She is one of FVC’s Bob Woodruff Farming Fellows, a program that has helped her secure adaptive farming equipment, making it possible for her to wrangle sheep even with her injury. And if being a single mother and raising all of those breeds wasn’t enough, Mickey also has a successful Etsy business selling her wool.

With Dot Ranch thriving, Mickey is now able to give back. She’s an ambassador for the FVC at Native American sheepherder events, and has ushered other vets into the FVC family. Tia says giving back like this demonstrates the program’s success. “Success for us honestly is when the veterans are able to mentor their peers, employ their peers, and pay it forward.”

The FVC has a strong connection to Farm Aid’s work of supporting the family farmer. Farm Aid was one of FVC’s earliest supporters, granting them $17,000 since 2009 to support their programming, most recently supporting their work training more than 100 veterans in farming skills, offering business planning to 31 veterans, and helping veterans secure legal counseling and disaster assistance in times of crisis. But that’s not all; Farmer Veteran Coalition has a huge presence at the Farm Aid concert each year, as part of the farmer meetings that take place before the concert and as part of the HOMEGROWN Village at the concert. FVC brings farmer veterans to Farm Aid from across the country to network with other farmers and spread the mission of the organization. Tia finds the jovial spirit of the Farm Aid concert conducive for recruiting would-be veteran farmers. “It’s really cool because we get awesome mentors and farmers to sign on with us when we’re at Farm Aid each year,” she says. Last year they recruited a veteran mushroom farmer and an entomologist.

Tia and her colleagues see the importance of the work they do everyday—not only finding employment for veterans, but also encouraging them to keep their spirits up and put their strong sense of service to use. Each and every farmer veteran motivates and inspires Tia. “It is often stated that farming and the military are two of the hardest professions; at FVC we believe that it takes a special type of person to do either, let alone both. I think the quality that’s most important for both is determination, and our farmer veterans have it in droves.” Helping military heroes and growing new farmers makes the Farmer Veteran Coalition a true Farmer Resource Network provider hero!

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Photo above provided courtesy of Jim Carroll Photography.

Growing Change: NY FarmNet

Every month Farm Aid features farmers in the Farmer Hero column. And rightfully so: farmers work hard to provide the rest of us with food and fiber. Now the Farmer Resource Network is highlighting organizations that tirelessly, and often silently, bolster up farmers across the country. These groups work to provide farmers with the resources they need to make their businesses thrive, and ultimately get fresh food to eaters. These service provider heroes are truly growing change.

NY Farmnet

 

One such organization is NY FarmNet. It offers support—be it informational, financial, or emotional—to farmers across the state of New York. This extensive combination of services makes NY FarmNet particularly unique. According to Ed Staehr, the organization’s executive director, NY FarmNet is one of the only “organizations that looks at both the financial and the personal side” of the business. Their holistic approach supports farmers in moments of crisis and vulnerability, as well as farmers seeking new opportunities.

FarmNet’s forty-seven consultants range from those with backgrounds in financial services to those who have a master’s degree in social work. Many of them are retired farmers or extension agents who are dedicated to lending a hand to other farmers. They work on an as-needed basis and aren’t paid big bucks to take calls and visit farms, but as Staehr says, “They don’t do this work because they have to, they do it because they love it. And that really shows in our results.”

While much of what Farm Aid is about is celebrating family farmers, one of the hard facts of our work to keep farmers on the land is that a farmer’s livelihood, and sometimes a farmer’s life, depends on the resources we can provide. Partners who have experience helping farmers through crisis are essential. NY FarmNet is one of those partners we call on in times of immediate need. As Staehr explains, “One incident that sticks in my mind is when a farmer called in and our program coordinator took the call from the answering service at two in the morning. This individual was very distraught and appeared to be suicidal.” Rachael Bothwell, NY FarmNet’s Program Coordinator stayed on the phone with the farmer through the night. The following day a FarmNet consultant arrived at the farm to provide additional emotional assistance and help the farmer sort out his business options.

NY Farmnet

Two really important pieces of FarmNet’s success are that the program is free for farmers and that all communication is strictly confidential. This program wouldn’t work any other way, as many farmers are reluctant to admit that they have a financial or emotional problem. FarmNet has worked really hard to earn this trust from farmers—and as is the case in a patient-doctor relationship, FarmNet consultants avoid acknowledging a person they’ve counseled if they happen to see them in the community.

Farmers find out about NY FarmNet through the organization’s own outreach and also through referrals from Farm Aid’s Farmer Resource Network—an online tool that connects farmers to organizations, services, and guides that help them run a smooth and efficient business.

Lately NY FarmNet has seen an influx of cases associated with weather variations. From flooded fields to parched crops, it’s been a summer of climatic extremes. But even with these challenges, Staehr sees a lot of opportunities for farmers, especially in local markets. “There’s always opportunity for farmers who are aware of consumer demand…I see that increasing with the movement toward local food,” he explains. NY FarmNet consultants help farmers get their produce into these markets, and devise value-added schemes to keep businesses viable.

Despite the many challenges that come along with farming, there are many opportunities, and NY FarmNet can assist with both. “Many times when people are confronted with multiple challenges it’s difficult to see these opportunities, and that’s where NY FarmNet can help” says Staehr. Together by referring farmers to opportunities and ultimately assisting them in a hands-on way, the Farmer Resource Network and NY FarmNet create a working partnership to help farmers thrive.

Learn More

  • Click here to learn more about New York FarmNet’s work and to see profiles of the organization’s consultants.
  • Visit the Farmer Resource Network to find resource providers in your area.
  • Email us with additional organizations to include in the Farmer Resource Network.

Photo above provided courtesy of NY FarmNet.