Photograph by Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
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Veteran Chris Knowlton now tends piglets on his farm in Swanville, Maine.
Photograph by Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Nonprofits Train Veterans For a New Challenge: Farming

America needs farmers—100,000 in the next decade to replace retiring farmers, whose average age is currently 57. And America needs jobs for veterans, more than a half-million of whom are unemployed, struggling to translate military skills to civilian jobs or make other adjustments to civilian life after active duty.

Today veterans who want to try farming have a new opportunity. The Farmer Veteran Coalition and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture are launching a veteran-farming program modeled on military-reserve weekends. The new program’s application was released last week; ten veterans will be chosen to participate.

Under the yearlong Veteran Farmer Reserve Program, veterans attend monthly weekend workshops and field trips to learn the art and science of farming, and get their hands dirty with 80 hours of volunteer work on Arcadia’s farm in Alexandria, Virginia. Accepted applicants will live with their families and hold down regular jobs during the other 28 days of the month, while trying out farming life. The program is tuition-based, but scholarships are available.

The idea started when Arcadia’s Executive Director Pamela Hess was a journalist in Iraq and witnessed a young American soldier guide several ethnic groups to negotiate reparations for those who died in an explosion in Tuz Khormatu. “This was a guy who drove a tank around, and he helped manage a delicate process to avoid conflict. That was my clue that the military has something special.” When Hess joined Arcadia, which is down the street from Fort Belvoir, “all signs pointed to, let’s do this.”

At the end of the year, each veteran will have a business plan for a farm and a sense of farming’s day-to-day physical toll. According to Hess, farm credit bureaus view this hands-on experience as crucial when making loans. “Farming is one of the physically and emotionally toughest things you can do,” she says. “You have to plan but adapt to crises, and be confident that you can tackle any challenge that comes your way. Veterans can do that because they are flexible, resilient, capable, and smart.”

Arcadia is nestled on land owned and farmed by George Washington (“the original veteran farmer,” as Hess calls him), and the National Trust for Historic Preservation granted a lease for 20 acres specifically for the project and veteran farm training. Arcadia was founded by the owner of a big-time Washington, D.C. restaurant group (who himself was in ROTC in college) so benefits of the program could go beyond training. “There isn’t enough organic and sustainable food in D.C. to feed everyone who wants it, so there are lots of opportunities for business partnerships. We can set veteran farmers up with chefs, or offer a wholesale contract for their locally-grown food.”

Tor Peery, a captain who is transitioning out of the Marine Corps, has applied for the program. His wife’s family owns a 100-acre farm in upstate New York that has been in the family for four generations. U.S. Department of Agriculture loans understandably require years of experience so veterans in Perry’s situation—lots of passion, drive, and infrastructure but no documented experience—are out of luck. (However, the Department of Agriculture gave Arcadia a small grant to run its program.)

Arcadia’s program would set Peery on a path to gain experience and access to better loans. He plans on growing hops for the state’s craft-beer industry which, in New York, must include a percentage of state-grown ingredients. “Arcadia appeals to me because the more I read about pesticides and wind-drift I thought, why would you damage our land just to make an extra buck?” he asked during an impassioned conversation right after he submitted his application. “I want to go as organic and sustainable as possible, and with Arcadia, I’ll learn that.”

What is good for the planet is good for the farmer too. According to Hess, mass-grown crops that are indistinguishable from each other (known as commodities) can fetch ten times less than crops that are farmed organic and sustainable, like ones that Arcadia’s veterans will learn to grow.

Additionally, Arcadia has one Veteran Farm Fellow onsite, a full-time paid trainee who farms and attends conferences and trainings for a more intensive experience. Laron Murrell, Arcadia’s current fellow, owns 50 acres in North Carolina. He knows 11 years in the Army helps him with farming. “No matter what my mission is or issue they put in front of me, I can overcome it. I know how to strategize to deal with problems and figure out a better way of doing things. The Army and farming are a lot of attention to detail.”

Hess notes that training is ingrained in military culture, and veterans absorb it and understand its value. Training with veterans—who share experiences and a common language—is often efficient and effective in a way that is different from trainings with civilians in the group. “Veterans come out with skills because that’s what they do.”

One applicant was asked whether he could handle farming in the heat of August under the blazing Virginia sun. His response: “I was in Fallujah for six months wearing 50 pounds of armor when it was 135 degrees. I think I can handle it.”