There’s no equivalent to being around like- minded people that are willing to take time away from their lives and families to attend something important. People from all over the country came together November 17 – 19, 2015 to network, learn from one another and find ways to re-acclimate from the military to the civilian world. Farmers, supporters and partners shared experiences, educational material and advice to hundreds of vets looking to enter or continue in the farming community. I was honored to be one of the attendees.
My personal experience led me (by accident) to agriculture. I joined the Army at seventeen and after ten years, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, I honorably discharged to be at home after the premature birth of my youngest daughter. I entered a new world, a world I was not prepared for. After, obtaining an assistantship in my undergraduate degree, I began to work in agriculture. Agriculture was pure peace. It was a space that I was not forced into conversation or asked questions. I was able to work hard on the land with results that had a purpose.
My experience led me to both a Master’s degree and now a PhD. I am studying my personal, as well as other military veterans, experience in agriculture. Unbeknown to be, there is a growing community of military combat veterans that have experienced similar benefits from farming or are eager to start farming. Many of them attended the 2015 Farmer Veteran Coalition stakeholder conference this past November in Sacramento California.
My goals for attending the conference included gaining new ideas, fresh insights, listening to inspiring stories, and networking. Listening to, meeting, and later sharing ideas on research with the United States Department of Agriculture Military Veterans Agricultural Liaison, USDA Lanon Baccam, Qualitative Core Director-Medical Anthropologist, Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research for Veteran Affairs, Dr. Karen Besterman-Dahan and Col. Cindra Chastain the Farmer Veteran Liaison for the National AgrAbility far exceeded my expectations for the conference. Their commitment to military veterans in agriculture inspired my aspiration to continue the direction of my research. In addition, I had the opportunity to converse with many fellow military veterans, whom with I formed exciting new relationships.
Col. Chastain introduced me to many other AgrAbility staff across the country including, the National AgrAbility program director, Bill Field. I was honored to discuss their views on military veterans in agriculture, as well as, their experiences in AgrAbility. AgrAbility is a sponsor of the FVC and I have recently joined the AgrAbility Virginia team through an assistantship with Virginia Tech under Dr. Kim Niewolny as part of my PhD studies.
The Mission of the Farmer Veteran Coalition is “Mobilizing Veterans to Feed America”. We share the belief that veterans possess the distinctive skills and personal character needed to build up agriculture communities and create sustainable and secure food systems. As my own experience has shown, farming offers veterans opportunity to work on the land in a physical manner. Psychological benefits occur through purpose.
Attending the conference gave the opportunity to specifically identify public and private entities that can work in collaboration to provide assistance to military veterans entering the agriculture community. I was also able to view specific detailed quantitative and qualitative data showing how working with plants and animals and producing food is therapeutic to those dealing with post-traumatic stress and/or traumatic brain injuries. I learned of Homegrown by Heroes label and the importance of its use in marketing military veterans’ products.
Outstanding breakout sessions were available. I attended Employment Opportunities in Agriculture, Successful Farmer Veterans – Stories of Transition and Achievement, Ag Entrepreneurs – veterans who have launched successful agriculture businesses outside of production and Financing Your Farm which all helped me understand how to better support veteran farmers. Finally I attendant the closing dinner. Where, successful stories of healing were shared and Mayor of Turlock, California discussed his time and work in Afghanistan and his mission to build their agriculture. Dinner allowed a space for more networking and sharing.
One repeated theme throughout the conference was how important local agriculture and food security are to our nation. There was no disagreement that military veterans are a great fit and should be a part of the solution. The veteran farming coalition, the executive director, Michael O’Gorman, staff, supporters, partners and of course, the military farming veterans, have a great community with in themselves. The Farmer Veteran Coalition was a true gathering of inspirational, motivating and supporting people. I was more than privileged to attend.
The AgrAbility Virginia website can be found at: http://www.agrability.ext.vt.edu/
The Farmer Veteran Coalition website can be found at: http://www.farmvetco.org/
Post Contributed By: Crystal Kyle. Crystal is a PhD student of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech, and works as a graduate research assistant for AgrAbility Virginia.