In Honor of Memorial Day 2016:
Farmer Veteran Coalition Helps Veterans Feed America
By Emily Johnson, Associate Editor
After 40 years of managing six different farming operations, Michael O’Gorman, executive director of Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), a national nonprofit serving military veterans in agriculture, decided to change directions with a little help from a study about zip codes that would have a big impact. Retirement or managing a seventh farm were his choices.
A report came out about all-voluntary military whose zip codes primarily came from rural communities. Understanding that veterans returning home would have limited access to benefits, social lives and support, and realizing he would need to hire new farmers, O’Gorman had a revolutionary idea, “What if I put one and one together and made something a lot bigger than two?”
Some of the veterans O’Gorman hired have had experience working on the farm, while others have had limited or none. The majority of them bucked hay in the summer as teens and that’s okay with O’Gorman. He finds that no matter their background, these vets know the lifestyle and enjoy what they’re doing.
Veterans who want to return to something as meaningful as their original enlistment are finding a reward in farming. Thousands of male and female vets are benefitting in a positive way at such a critical juncture in their lives.
Supplying a secure and rewarding job for thousands of veterans wasn’t always that easy in the beginning. O’Gorman recalls the first year, “I had to chase them down if I heard of one; I had to go in a pickup truck and find them, literally,” he said. O’Gorman’s efforts in setting the vets up for success paid off though, as over 300 veterans call O’Gorman every month just to check in and say hello.
The relationships between O’Gorman and the farmer veterans reach beyond the employer helping employee scenario: O’Gorman provides them with connections to the outside world, increases job placement and inspires an overall interest in farming that was never there before.
Their latest venture has involved the Department of Defense in working with the USDA to promote agriculture, a huge step towards the future of farming. With 99% of the most valuable farmland in the U.S. already being farmed, veterans are finding ways to utilize smaller pieces of land and still compete in the marketplace. For instance, when they settle closer to population centers, they can sell directly to consumers.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition found a way to help promote smaller-scale agriculture by founding the “Homegrown by Heros” label, the brainchild of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. “Local food system agriculture benefits greatly from being able to display the identity of being a veteran and being grown by a veteran,” O’Gorman stated.
Finding farmland does not seem to be inconvenient as veterans are moving to places like California, the South, the Midwest, New England and New York. Veterans have learned to adapt and be adaptable—a positive outlook for anyone in the farming industry.
So many military personnel have become close friends within the industry, the Farmer Veteran Coalition holds an annual Stakeholder’s Conference. A subgroup of this population is the women farmers who make up only a minority in the military and a minority in agriculture. Oftentimes the bonds between the women farmers are powerful, as most of them have taken on very difficult tasks, usually before the age of 30.
Carrying out the mission of “Mobilizing Veterans to Feed America,” said O’Gorman, “the Farmer Veteran Coalition has been extremely helpful for their mental health and farming. They are helping each other and they are teaching each other, and that is really easy to see,” O’Gorman noted.