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Skills acquired in service carrying over to farm life
(Editor’s note: This is the second 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. — The barriers that veterans face when starting a career in agriculture aren’t much different from any other new farmer. Access to land, capital and resources are all high on the list.
So are the practical farming skills needed to operate a farm day to day.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition and the American Farm Bureau Federation are actively working on a mentorship program that hopes to at least make it easer for veterans to learn farming skills.
“The biggest barrier, I find is coming up with a realistic plan,” says Michael O’Gorman, founder and executive director of Farmer Veteran Coalition. “The media is saturated with hype over new types of agriculture, but it’s not always the most realistic way to start a career in farming.”
O’Gorman himself is an experienced farmer with a career that spans more than four decades. In 1990, O’Gorman was tapped to run the first organic farm in Salinas, Cal.
He spent the next 20 years in leadership roles at various companies, growing for some of the industry’s most well known organic produce brands.
He founded the Farmer Veteran Coalition in 2008 for a variety of personal reasons, one of them being his agricultural background. The other was as father with children impacted by 9/11. His daughter was working at World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and survived. His son joined the military just days later.
He remembers looking at the long list of veterans’ organizations noticing that, “not a single one focused on careers in agriculture, or to help veterans in rural communities.”
Many veterans come from rural communities says O’Gorman, calling out some general statistics. He says about half of veterans, “grew up around farms. They might be one or two generations removed, but they have a knowledge of what farming feels like.”
Twenty-five percent, he continues, “are direct heirs - in line to inherit a farm and surprisingly, we’re seeing that number go up.”
The rest, he says have never stepped foot on a farm.
But for whatever some veterans may be lacking in practical farming experience, they more than make up for in other areas.
The common call from veterans turned farmers is that their military experience has helped prepare them for a career in agriculture.
Shaun Alf is a military veteran with 15 years in the Army. He had no farming experience before he started Cheerful Chicken Farm in Disputanta, Va. As he says, it’s easy to learn how to farm, but you can’t exactly teach someone all that goes along with it.
“Farming is the kind of work that requires dedication,” says Alf. He has livestock on his farm that needs to be cared for regardless of the weather or time of day. “It doesn’t matter if there’s rain or lightning or it’s two in the morning. Dealing with those kinds of things are part of farming culture and military culture.”
Perseverance is another trait that farmers and veterans both share.
Justen Garrity says, after being in Iraq, “a bad day on the farm is not as bad as a good day over there.” He had an award-winning career as a combat engineer officer and served five years of active duty with Army National Guard.
When he returned home, he was surprised at the difficulty he had finding a job.
After months of searching, Garrity launched Veteran Compost in 2010, a business that turns food scraps into high quality organic compost. Based in Aberdeen, Md., his company offers residential and commercial food scrap collection in the DC Metro area, which is then turned into finished compost.
Garrity sells the bulk or bagged compost as well as worm castings and gardening mix. He’s also branched out into selling composting supplies and eco-gardening materials.
He says many young people who are interested in agriculture don’t get how much hard work is involved. “A lot of people have a romantic idea of what farming is.
It’s not about wearing a plaid shirt and driving a tractor. It’s dirty and a lot of long hours and hard work. But at the same time, it can be very rewarding and profitable.”
Hard work is something Bob Miller of Nice Farms Creamery in Caroline County, Maryland grew up with. For him, the farm-military skills have gone both ways.
Miller says growing up on a dairy farm gave him an advantage over his comrades and helped to better prepare for the military.
“I had respect, at a very young age, for taking care of livestock and equipment,” Miller said. “Most kids have chores like taking out the trash. Growing up on a farm matures you more than the typical kid. You have more self discipline.”
An unexpected benefit of growing up on a farm was the ability to relate to Iraqi soldiers, Miller added.
“A lot of those guys come from agriculture. Many of their officers have small farms. A few American officers came from rural backgrounds, but it gave me something in common with them,” he said.
While Miller was deployed to Iraq, his family’s dairy suffered through some of the worst years. From 2005 to 2010, a downturn in milk prices and sharp increase in feed costs resulted in his parents thinking of selling off some of the cows and he remembered being genuinely worried that he wouldn’t have a farm to come home to.
The organizational and leadership skills he gleaned from the Army, he says, are what allowed him to come home and help regenerate the family farm.
He and his wife Jaclynne, started a micro-creamery and direct market milk and yogurt, promoting their products as grass-fed. By direct marketing, he says, they capture the retail price and stay more insulated from fluctuations in the dairy market.
Denise Hudson of Hudson Heritage Farms in South Boston, Va., says the organizational skills that come from the military are key. Veterans have learned how to multi-task she said, which is something that’s hard to teach, but also essential for a farmer.
“Flexibility is a requirement in the military. Even with the best planned day, you have to be able to handle any issues that come up,” says Hudson. She and her husband, David, both served in the Air Force and then the Army National Guard.
From her experience, military training is almost the perfect training for someone who wants to become a farmer.
“Anyone who has been in military service has been trained to not be afraid of dirty work or long days,” she said. “They’ve had the experience of physical work and know the dedication that is required.”