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Program a combined effort between FVC, AFBF reps
(Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series on the experiences U.S. military veterans in the Mid-Atlantic region have had starting farm businesses.)
By JAMIE CLARK TIRALLA
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Aug. 5, 2014) — Two important organizations have come together to help men and women returning from war launch new careers in agriculture: The Farmer Veteran Coalition and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Forces were set in motion two years ago, when the late Sabrina Matteson, director of rural affairs at the AFBF, and Michael O’Gorman, founder and executive director of FVC, met at a national governance meeting.
The connection between the two grew into a formal partnership between their respective organizations to share resources and provide support for veterans who wanted to get into farming.
“In some ways, the partnership with the Farm Bureau has always been there,” said O’Gorman who founded the FVC in 2008. “All along, it’s been my vision to not just be one more group in a pile of groups helping veterans, but to bring our industry together — to mobilize veterans to feed America and to mobilize farmers to help veterans become farmers.”
Matteson died in December 2013, after a battle with cancer, but not before finishing a 16-page partnership agreement that O’Gorman describes as “beautiful.”
The guide, which was released earlier this year, is designed to be a framework for local Farm Bureau organizations to initiate outreach programs in their communities for veterans.
O’Gorman says most veterans will return to rural communities, where the unemployment rates are typically higher.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the national unemployment rate to have dropped to just above 6 percent, but the unemployment rate among post 9/11 veterans still hovers at 7 percent.
The next step in the partnership between the AFBF and FVC is a mentorship program. Lisa Hightower, the new AFBF director of rural affairs, is every bit as enthusiastic as her predecessor about the future of the partnership.
“The Farmer Veteran Coalition does an excellent job at providing training and addressing the issues that are unique to veterans,” Hightower said. “The Farm Bureau is focused on supporting farm families and communities, including veterans that live in our communities.”
Farm Bureau can help extend the reach of FVC, says Hightower, by providing resources, training and opportunities in the local communities.
“We’ve found that many veterans are already connected with their local Young Farmers and Ranchers program. What we’re trying to do,” Hightower said, “is provide our state and county Farm Bureau staff with even more resources that will help them provide more member services to those veterans.”
O’Gorman’s organization conduced a survey and found that requests from veterans for one-on-one mentoring with a farmer were “off the charts.”
Shaun Alf echoes the sentiment about the importance of mentorship.
Alf served in the U.S. Army for 15 years.
He grew up in Florida and owning a farm was a dream that he and his wife, Heather, shared.
They were stationed at various places across the United States, but eventually settled in southeastern Virginia where they started their farm, Cheerful Chicken Farm.
He says finding a mentor in his area for the type of farming he does hasn’t been easy, but it hasn’t stopped him either.
Alf has sought out internships on other farms and pieced together information from books and articles he’s read.
He’s used the practical experience from the military as well as time spent farming in Arizona and applied it to his homestead farm.
“It’s always good to see what right looks like,” said Alf. “The Farmer Veteran Coalition has made a huge impact on our farm. Simply knowing that there was someone I could call and ask questions and get legal or technical support from. Knowing that I wasn’t all by myself.”
Denise Hudson, of Hudson Heritage Farms in South Boston, Va., agrees that mentorship is crucial for new farmers.
Even though her farm is only in its fifth official year of business, she’s already opening her doors to other new farmers and homesteaders who want to learn what farming is all about.
Both Hudson and her husband, David, are veterans of the United States Air Force and Army National Guard.
They bought their Halifax County farm in 1983, while they were still living in Alaska.
The distance between the couple and the farm became considerably smaller, though, in 2006, when David was appointed as the Senior Enlisted Advisor for the National Guard Bureau.
Hudson says she would spend every opportunity she had on the farm.
She found mentors in the Stuart area and slowly grew into the multi-species livestock operation she has today.
The farm’s focus is on naturally raised, grass fed meats from Scottish Highland cattle, Horned Dorset sheep, Boer goats and various breeds of swine.
They are now one of the mentor farms for Virginia Tech University.
They also host a range of agricultural programs for the novice and experienced farmer alike including farm butcher, cheese making and food preserving classes.
The Hudsons are members of both the Farmer Veteran Coalition and the Virginia Farm Bureau and they said they are especially interested in mentoring veterans who want to start farming.
“We have been really lucky and fortunate to have really good mentors,” Hudson said. “So, we feel we have an obligation to pay it forward.”