A Battle Worth Fighting

How the future of small family farms can be secured by our veterans through a win-win mentoring operation

By Dulanie Ellis


America's returning veterans can be our next generation of farmersIt turns out that there's hope in one group of young adults who are increasingly enthusiastic about learning to farm: veterans who served in the United States Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard. These young men and women have learned how to endure long hours and physical duress, have been taught strategic planning and risk assessment, and have had to do a lot with very little to survive. These are the same characteristics that mark a successful farmer. Veterans already have the work ethic; now all they need is specific agricultural training from farmer mentors. "We need thousands of mentors," says Michael O'Gorman of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. "We need old farmers like me who are willing to say, 'I've spent my whole life growing. I can take some time and show you how to do that.'"

For navy officers Coleman and Bridget Ruiz, that "someone" was John Wilson, or Farmer John, at New Earth Farm in Virginia. It began with visiting the farm each week to buy their farm-fresh produce and volunteering with their three young sons. As their interest in agriculture grew, Farmer John agreed to show them the ropes. The arrangement made sense to the experienced farmer because of something he had once heard at an organic farming convention: "If we want this movement to continue, 50 percent of your job [as a farmer] is education." The family continued to learn until farming became not just a hobby but a choice of lifestyle. Why? For the Ruiz family, choosing farming is about quality of life and the skills and values they want to pass on to their boys. This is possible when each generation teaches the next.

In Pennsylvania, Troops to Tractors is matching veterans with established farmers in a process designed to benefit both. Recently, the Westmoreland Conservation District staff in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, recognized that the hundreds of protected, heritage farms in their region would soon need hard-working farmers. In response, they began the Troops to Tractors program in 2012 to facilitate farmer mentorship opportunities for veterans. District staff direct veterans to the G.I. Bill and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs programs to help defray expenses and enable veterans to receive college credits.

Nationally, the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) is addressing this need for new food producers by hosting educational retreats for veterans throughout the country. The coalition invites veterans for a free weekend (sponsored by the USDA's Risk Management Agency) to see farm and ranch operations up close, hearing straight from people working crops and livestock about the opportunities and challenges of a career in sustainable agriculture—what farming looks like, smells like, and pays like. The FVC also offers grants through its Fellowship Fund.