August 24, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1513 of Escondido hosted a Veteran & Farmer Resources Workshop put on by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS), an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), at the post’s location, 230 E. Park Avenue.
Victor Hernandez, the NRCS’s outreach coordinator for California, conducted the workshop. Invitees and participants included other USDA specialists, representatives from CalVet and the San Marcos Vet Center, veteran farmers and those veterans planning to make careers in agriculture, local agricultural industry leaders and consultants, and specialists in entrepreneurship.
The principal objective of the workshop was to create more awareness of the programs, funding, and resources available through USDA NRCS, and the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to both veterans and active duty military personnel.
The NRCS has found that veterans are underrepresented in participation in conservation programs and it is looking to form alliances with agricultural, veteran, and local business organizations to educate and increase awareness of the USDA and various community resources within the veteran community. A developing role of the NRCS is also to provide more veteran farmers and ranchers with technical guidance and financial assistance to help them implement proven conservation practices on their land.
The Veteran & Farmer Resources workshop consisted of introductions of the key participants. Keynote speaker was Colin Archipley of Archi’s Acres. The program continued with three 45-minute panels, the first panel; Veteran & Educational Resources, then Business Resources, and Agricultural Resources. The panel sessions shared business insight and industry trade advice while highlighting more specifically regionally available agencies, companies, and individuals aligned with the panel topics. There were a series of booths set up by various agricultural and veteran support organizations for farmers, veterans, and the general public to learn and gather more information.
USDA/NRCS offers programs that provide both consultation and cost share financing for farmers who want to undertake specific conservation practices with a goal of creating greater farming efficiencies while protecting the land. USDA/NRCS has found that the veteran population represents a substantial segment of potential usersof their programs.
Karen Archipley of Archi’s Acres in Valley Center, said, “Our research shows that forty six percent of all veterans come from rural communities.” This segment is a key target population for the training and certifications in organic farming that Archi’s Acres provides.
She went on to say that veterans, especially those with rural backgrounds, have through their military training developed many of the requisite qualities needed to be an entrepreneurial farmer or horticulturist.
Colin Archipley in his keynote talk revealed these qualities in more colorful, military style language, “Combat veterans are taught to out-think the enemy. They look at the battle space as a whole, create confusion, and then exploit it,” he said.
Those veterans typically coming into agriculture from the outside do so with no preconceived notions about what is the right and what is the wrong thing to do. He continued, “They look at farming differently and aren’t afraid to try new things. Some things will work, some won’t.”
The 2014 Farm Bill outlines the various policies and guidelines that must be followed by all USDA agencies. NCRS program assistance has always been equally accessible to all farmers and ranchers, whereas, the veteran population is developing as a new component of the U.S. Farm Bill.
Although NRCS programs are open to all farmers and ranchers, the U.S. Farm Bill states specifically that preference will be given to beginning farmers who are qualified veterans. Veterans for several reasons are not actively engaged in NRCS resources, therefore NRCS has created a more concerted effort to reach them. The workshop format is an attempt to make that effort more effective.
USDA/NRCS defines a veteran who has never farmed or has farmed for less than ten years as a beginning farmer or rancher (BFR). A BFR can receive selection preferences when applying for NRCS services and funding to undertake conservation program practices on the land they control.
An eligible Veteran Farmer or Rancher (VFR) must have been discharged or released from the service under conditions other than dishonorable and must meet the definition of aBFR. If the veteran also qualifies as being “socially disadvantaged,” the veteran can receive additional consideration for those same services and funding. USDA/NCRS has specific definitions for who would qualify as “socially disadvantaged” and what those additional considerations would be.
Part of the overall plan is to make contact with veterans before they actually move into the veteran classification. In order to get to them early, there are now actions specifically targeted to active duty personnel in their transition from the military. A memorandum of understanding has been developed between the USDA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation to aid in reaching active duty service members that are 6-12 months from End of Active Service. This is now being done through military transition summit conferences and career fairs.
USDA and the NCRS have created a clear road map for anyone interested in farming or ranching. Usually prospective farmers and rancher will first begin with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) for financing options and insurance programs. Here they will start to learn about NRCS and conservation programs.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides technical assistance with regard to Soil, Water and Energy. A veteran who is interested at that point in the value of farming conservation methods can meet with their local District Conservationist (Cori Calvert for San Diego County) to identify conservation or technical assistance need. The district conservationist will walk the farm and identify to the farmer or rancher conservation needs and strategies to consider.
A mutual interest partnership has also been developed between the USDA, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, and the Farmer Veteran Coalition to help veteran farmers differentiate their products in the marketplace. This partnership will later host a series of five-day workshops, called ‘Armed to Farm,’ tailored for veterans and meant to highlight the veteran label ‘Home Grown by Heroes’.
Although USDA/NCRS organized the workshop to highlight their specific programs for veterans, the addition of other veteran services enhanced the overall presentation. During Archipley’s keynote talk, he mentioned the number of deployments that individualcombat veterans underwent during the Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan.
He said that this seriously curtailed their ability to continue their education while still on active duty and often times hindered a sufficient transition to civilian life. When combined with the battle trauma that many veterans experience, it goes to the core of some of the reasons why the veteran population today in the United States is underemployed. A common theme throughout Archipley’s talk was the military skills and perspective that veterans are taught while on active duty, prepare the veteran for an entrepreneurial lifestyle. The testimony of Archipley’s own company, Archi’s Acres, is a classic illustration of what can be done in agriculture.
For those combat veteran farmers who may struggle to some degree in integrating back into the community, Joe Costello and Bo Gonzales of the San Marcos Vet Center shared how the 300 Vet Centers nationwide, adjuncts of the Veterans Administration, serve the veteran with “talk therapy.”
The San Marcos Vet Center sponsors a safe haven for those veterans suffering battle related traumatic moral injury who desire a compassionate ear and face that they may not feel they see otherwise anywhere else. The Vet Center uses non-traditional modalities to engage the vet and their immediate families in an effort to reintegrate them productively into their community. Costello and Gonzales encouraged any veteran who seeks a shelter, without judgment, even if they have no file with the Veterans Administration, to approach the Center located in the San Marcos City Hall for empathetic intervention.
Simon Marquez, the San Diego representative for Cal-Vet, emphasized a couple of benefits for veterans, particularly those interested in agriculture. He highlighted the college tuition fee waiver that California veterans can employ for their children to help defer some financing burden. He also mentioned that Cal-Vet has a very aggressive home and farm loan program that has built up a large reserve in the past few years as Realtors have diverted potential home buyers to VA home loan guarantees instead. That has left Cal-Vet witha substantial amount of money ready for both homes and farms.
Carlos Figari, Director, Veterans Business Outreach Center, part of the US Small Business Administration, located in Carlsbad, emphasized that resources for planning and financing are available for free to guide veterans desiring to start a business.
His most essential advice was that he “helps people get ready to meet the banker.” He added that, whereas most business plans are a kind of marathon, a business plan for agriculture is “an ultra-marathon” principally due to the changing nature of the industry. Crops come in and out of fashion and the visionary farmer has to anticipate and react in kind.
The workshop highlighted the constant point that veterans represent a distinct category of potential entrepreneurs based on their learned and practiced military skills.
Agriculture can be the means to make that entrepreneurial dream something real. The United States at one time was predominantly agricultural until little by little the rural population moved into the cities and towns for jobs in industry. Yet, even, then, while the United States was the most dominant industrial nation in the world, the effects of globalization saw a majority of that manufacturing and the jobs take flight overseas leaving behind little more than a collection of service industries with a smattering of manufacturing.
But, the truth about agriculture is that, not only do people need to eat, but the land on which crops and plants are grown cannot be exported. The jobs stay in the United States where the land and the crops are.
Does that mean that the United States will again be a majority rural economy? Probably not, though the hope of the organizers of and participants in the workshop is that more and more talent among veterans will look at agriculture with the chance of making the United States more of the “bread basket” of the world than it ever was.