American farmers are aging out." We were just starting interviews for a new documentary and I wasn't exactly sure what "aging out" meant, but it didn't sound good. Then the statistics started rolling in. Only 1 percent of Americans grow the food we eat, and half of them are ready to retire. There are eight times as many farmers over the age of 65 as under the age of 35. And then came the coup de grâce: In 2012, the USDA suggested we'd need 100,000 new farmers in the next 10 years to fill the coming gap. But the popular call is now for 1,000,000. Are you kidding me? A million new farmers?
Agriculture's got a problem. We eaters have a problem! Especially those of us who want to eat real food, food that has not been routinely poisoned, food that doesn't play genetic roulette in our gut, food that has heritage qualities of flavor and nutrition.
"You know, people talk about organic food like it's for the lifestyle of the rich and famous," says army veteran and chef-farmer Matthew Raiford, "but really, it's just good food for everyone." Matthew and his sister, Althea, a navy vet with a heavy-equipment license, are restoring their family farm in coastal Georgia. The Raifords know about generational farming and passing down knowledge; their land has been in the family since just after the Civil War. Because of the land's history, theirs is one of only two African American–owned farms awarded a Georgia Centennial Family Farm certificate. As two young adults aspiring to farm, they were the lucky ones. The matriarchs in their family simply handed them a gift deed to the land—land that needed the next generation of farmers.
But what about the farmers and ranchers who are reaching the end of their productive years when their land hasn't? The land is still yearning to be planted, tended, and harvested. What happens to farmers in their 60s whose kids have gone off to the city to do something other than the hard work of farming? Farmers who want to grow old on their land, but who need help to manage it? Where do they turn? Who can take over the reins?
It 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.
Farming is not a romantic, idyllic life—unless you've just survived the high-velocity impact of a war fought building-by-building in cities of the Middle East. Then you might relish the chance to work outside, nurturing living plants and animals, at a job that requires all the focus and skill you can bring to it.
It's a movement whose time has come, this linkage of veteran and agricultural communities. The face of agriculture is changing and needs producers with an eye to energy conservation, pollution reduction, and climate volatility. There's a new wave of farmers and ranchers looking at a more holistic approach, supported by findings from the Rodale Institute and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food that organic methods of food production equal or (in droughts) outproduce the so-called "conventional" form of farming.
Connecting those dots became very clear to Sgt. Colin Archipley, U.S. Marine Corps, after serving three deployments in Iraq and witnessing what that country endured. "Food security and energy security are a direct link to national security," says Archipley. He came home to join his wife, Karen, in creating Archi's Acres, an organic, hydroponic herb business that garners shelf space at Whole Foods supermarkets. Using 95 percent less water than its herb competition, organic hydroponics is energy efficient and produces multiple yields. So Archipley decided to train other veterans to take this indoor growing technique to abandoned warehouses in downtown food deserts all over the country. Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training was born, and well over a hundred budding farmers and food entrepreneurs have since graduated.
Our country confronts a health crisis with unhealthy diet a major contributor to premature death, so changing what we eat and how we grow it is essential. "Think of nutrition as part of our national security and organic farmers as the first responders," says Sam Farr, U.S. representative from Monterey County, California. Veteran farmers bring affordable, healthy food to the table. America needs a million new farmers. Veterans want the job!
Battlefields to Farmfields
An estimated 40 percent of those who serve in the U.S. military are from rural America, so farming as a way of life is not unfamiliar. The documentary film Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields, produced by Dulanie Ellis and Raymond Singer, charts the transition of several veterans from active duty to active farming. Ground Operations (groundoperations.net), their social action group, exists to increase resources for veterans working to create new lives for themselves and food security for their communities.
Watch the Video!
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, Oct/Nov 2013