Commentary: ’Tis the season

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Along with the relentless drone of sappy holiday carols wafting through every store in America, the holiday season brings a similarly endless barrage of solicitation for support from every group, cause and charity in existence.

That’s because the folks in charge of funding for such groups understand that at Christmas time people are a lot more likely to open their hearts—and wallets—to fork over for organizations in which they believe.

It’s a noble impulse, but of course, none of us can respond to every one.

Here’s a group that is worthy of your consideration, and it may be a group that you haven’t heard about until today.

It’s called the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, a Davis, Calif.-based non-profit started in 2008 to help transition veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan find work and re-establish a productive life and career that is often the hardest part of military service

When I interviewed Michael O’Gorman, the group’s founder and executive director, at a Farm Aid concert, he explained that the impetus to launch the organization was to help military veterans obtain gainful employment, which as the data show, is often a struggle. As a long-time farmer-manager for some of the larger organic operations in California,O’Gorman decided that along with productive work, raising food for a living could be part of the healing process that combat survivors had to go through.

“We wanted to help our veterans by helping them join a new generation of farmers, not just to have a job but to learn a profession that can last a lifetime,” he said. “But as dedicated and hard-working as most military folks tend to be, they need training, they need capital and they need support to succeed as farmers or producers.”

In an op-ed co-authored with Deputy USDA Secretary Kathleen Merrigan in May, O’Gorman noted that as many as one-quarter of all active-duty service members come from smaller, rural communities. It’s natural for them to return to their hometowns, but often difficult to find employment when there aren’t a lot of options from which to choose.

A new generation of farmers

That’s where the coalition comes in. A big part of their program is establishing farm apprenticeships, so that veterans new to farming can get up to speed on the techniques and technologies needed to succeed. Yes, much of the group’s focus is on organic production, specialty produce and raising heritage breeds of livestock. So what? How else are veterans supposed to get started in agriculture, short of somebody stepping up with massive amounts of capital to lend?

That’s not going to happen. Even though USDA recently launched a microloan program for entry-level farmers, the limits on lending preclude anyone becoming a commodity grower on the several thousand acres needed these days to afford the equipment and resources required to be competitive in the marketplace.

As noted in this space more times than I care to count, agriculture needs more farmers, more ranchers, more producers, more growers of every type and size and persuasion. We need a whole new generation of food producers—tens of thousands of them—and for most people without either inherited wealth or access to serious amounts of capital, the only entryway into farming or livestock production is to become a specialty producer.

And that’s all good.

click image to zoom

Garrett Dwyer, a Marine Corps veteran and cattle rancher from Nebraska, is typical of the people impacted by the coalition’s efforts. As the group’s recent newsletter recounted:

“Garrett joined the Marines after high school and served for four years, including a deployment to Iraq. During his service, he yearned to return home and continue his family’s ranching legacy. Upon completion of his service, he enrolled in the University of Nebraska’s College of Technical Agriculture. After graduating with a degree in Agricultural Production, Garret purchased his first herd of cattle and began ranching on his family’s 5,280-acre property. But as the drought increased the price of alfalfa, Garrett’s ability to feed his herd was threatened.He was recently awarded with a Bob Woodruff Farming Fellowship through the Farmer-Veteran Fellowship Fund, which allowed him to purchase alfalfa and keep his herd strong.”

Although they’re small, but growing, the Farmer-Veteran Coalition is doing monumentally positive work helping hundreds of vets who otherwise find themselves back home in small town America without work, without income and without a whole lot of hope. That’s a tragedy that could and should be addressed by the federal government, but until our elected leaders find the will to truly fulfill all the campaign rhetoric about supporting the troops, the coalition needs and deserves your support.

As the commenters on the group’s website have noted, the group is making a very positive impact.

“The vets I met with [through the organization] are enormous assets for the country,” one wrote. "They are creating jobs, strengthening rural communities, and growing great food. As they always have, they will succeed in this.”

Or how about this observation?

“The organization has done some amazing things and I can personally attest to the professionalism and dedication of its leadership. If you would like to get involved or make a donation, I highly recommend it.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

To learn more, or to break out your credit card, log onto the Farmer-Veteran Coalition website.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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