From Arms to Farms: Helping Veterans Get Into the Field and Transition to Civilian Life

Photo by @crystalmariesing via twenty20.com

Running a farm is one of the toughest and riskiest jobs a person can have. In fact, even breaking into the farm business has become increasingly difficult over the last few decades.  According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), access to land and capital present enormous obstacles for the nation's young and beginning farmers. Although the USDA does offer loans to new farmers, small loans are difficult to obtain and current loan rules can disqualify even experienced farmers. To make matters worse, since 1967 farm real estate values and annual farmland rents have skyrocketed, making farm ownership incredibly difficult for beginning farmers.

For military veterans and farmers of color in this country, starting and managing a farm can be even harder. Even though federal programs exist to support all farmers - including conservation, funding and disaster assistance programs - very few veterans and minority farmers have participated in these programs, often due to inadequate outreach and assistance, limited resources and discriminatory lending practices to these groups. For veterans, starting a farm can be an especially difficult challenge because, as many studies have noted, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have a hard time transitioning back into civilian lives and work in general and have higher than average unemployment rates. 

Help for Veterans Interested in Farming

In recent years, an increasing number of veterans have shown interest in farming as a profession. In response, several non-profit organizations and universities have started programs to help them get into the field. In 2014, Congress got interested in the issue as well and expanded the farm bill's  Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program and Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to include veterans.

Known as the "Section 2501" program after its original farm bill section number, the Socially Disadvantaged Farmer and Rancher grant program was established in 1990 to provide funding to organizations that develop outreach and technical assistance programs for "socially disadvantaged farmers" including African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latino farmers. By adding veterans to the program, organizations can receive funding to help give troops returning home the opportunity to obtain, own, operate and retain farms and participate in USDA programs. In addition, by expanding the beginning farmers program to include veterans, the USDA can now provide veterans with access to low interest rate loans to buy equipment and livestock, and allow them to apply for grants to expand their farming operations and implement environmental conservation practices.

Socially Disadvantaged Farmer and Rancher Program Grant Winners

While USDA is yet to announce Section 2501 program winners for 2017, below is a brief description of three of the orgs that got funding through the grant program in 2016 that are helping veteran farmers. Visit the USDA website for a full description of all of the projects that received funding under the 2501 program last year:

Michigan Integrated Food & Farming Systems - Will assist socially disadvantaged and Farmer Veterans to successfully own and operate farms and ranches in Michigan by facilitating and enhancing the development of a Farmer Veteran Network within the state that will provide the group with support and education to become successful agriculture entrepreneurs, help them fill out required USDA forms, grant assistance and linking USDA agency partners with farmers. The organization will also facilitate statewide workshops where socially disadvantaged and Farmer Veterans can come together to learn, share resources and network.

Desert Forge Foundation - Home to 6,000 recently returned combat Veterans in need of employment, the New Mexico based Desert Forge Foundation has created the Warrior Farmer Project to train Veterans in need to take up farming, ranching and value added product businesses in order to improve their economic conditions.  In phase two, the Warrior Farmer Project will provide outreach to Veterans statewide, including tribal communities, and offer technical assistance in creating new or improving existing farm, ranch and value added enterprises.

Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma - The Choctaw Nation, the third largest tribal population in the US, received a grant to conduct a 12 month project to address the needs that exist among their region's Veterans, minority producers and disadvantaged youth. The project will provide direct, culturally appropriate community outreach activities and agricultural education at the grassroots level where those in need are ground. The goal of the project is to improve participation in USDA programs and develop the region's human, physical, technical and financial agriculture infrastructure which will lead to long term economic growth and prosperity.