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DES MOINES (DTN) -- After years of work by local groups to help military veterans become farmers, such efforts are demanding more coordinated support from federal agencies.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition held its first national stakeholder conference last Friday and Saturday at Drake University in Des Moines to discuss both the avenues and roadblocks to helping veterans get involved in agriculture.
Michael O'Gorman, a retired farm manager from California, is executive director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which was founded in 2006. O'Gorman said the coalition was designed to be a first option for veterans trying to connect with farmers or local groups that can help potential farmers. Yet, a 2006 study showed rural America makes up a disproportionate percentage of military members deployed overseas.
"It's a gap I saw when I was looking at retiring after 40 years in large-scale fruit and vegetable production," O'Gorman said.
O'Gorman called the stakeholders' conference a milestone for the coalition. He noted that when the coalition began, there were more than 40,000 veteran organizations across the country but there was little help getting veterans into agriculture. There were at least 60 such groups at the meeting last week.
"Most of the groups out there, we helped them get started or introduced them to others," O'Gorman said.
Charles Kruse was not only president of the Missouri Farm Bureau for 18 years, but he also rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Missouri National Guard after enlisting as a private in 1966. Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, asked Kruse to represent Farm Bureau on the Farmer Veteran Coalition board. Kruse said he also felt this was a cause that he wanted to be involved in.
"I've never seen a time in my 38 years of farming when agribusiness is crying for good people" like today, Kruse said.
Veterans may want to consider looking for jobs in other areas of agribusiness if they can't find farm work, Kruse said. He suggested looking for jobs at local cooperatives, for instance. Former soldiers possess a lot of traits anyone would want in an employee, including work ethic, perseverance, integrity and eagerness to learn, he said.
"These people coming off active duty have a lot to offer and agriculture has a great need for people who possess these qualities," Kruse said.
Krysta Harden, USDA's deputy secretary, spoke to the stakeholder conference on Friday. She noted that getting veterans to consider an agricultural career has been a repeated effort for USDA throughout its history. Harden showed some USDA promotional material from 1944 encouraging World War II veterans to consider careers in agriculture.
"We know we owe you more than we can give back," Harden said. "We want to collectively in the U.S. government to do what we can -- join our forces, use our resources, make sure we are not duplicating but filling in the gap -- to help you, especially those of you who are interested in coming back to agriculture."
O'Gorman's career concentrated on managing large organic fruit and vegetable farms in California and Mexico. He noted, however, that the coalition isn't interested in promoting any particular kind of farm. He wants to stress that young people getting into agriculture need to consider an array of options for growing food and also understand the challenges of running a business.
"It's an incredible number of hurdles. The biggest problem I see with that equation is that it doesn't leave them the time they need to learn how to farm."