WASHINGTON — Each Veteran’s Day, Americans give thanks to the millions of military veterans and their families who selflessly serve our country. This year, Congress also has an important opportunity to show their appreciation for America’s veterans – by supporting outreach and training programs in the next farm bill that will help veterans to find new, meaningful vocations in agriculture.
According to S.A.V.E. (Service member Agricultural Vocation Education) Farm, a Kansas-based non-profit organization that assists service members and veterans in transitioning to careers in agriculture, roughly 40% of the 2.3 million of American veterans currently transitioning to civilian life are interested in becoming America’s next generation of farmers or ranchers. The 2018 Farm Bill, which is one month overdue but still being actively debated by the bicameral Farm Bill Conference Committee, can help veterans make the transition to meaningful careers in agriculture by including a new, innovative program: the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO).
“FOTO combines two programs with excellent records of success, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers Program (“Section 2501”), in order to create a singular, stronger program,” said Juli Obudzinski, Interim Policy Director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). “These two programs are unique in their dedication to helping our nation’s most underserved farmers and ranchers – veterans, persons of color, and those just beginning careers in agriculture. By combining them into FOTO (as the Senate-passed farm bill does), Congress could make the benefits of BFRDP and Section 2501 permanent by providing mandatory funding for the critical outreach and training services that support the next generation of farmers – including our nation’s military veterans.”
BFRDP is the only federal program specifically dedicated to training the next generation of producers, while Section 2501 has been USDA’s primary tool for increasing access to federal services for historically underserved producers. In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress expanded Section 2501’s mission to serve farmers of color to also include providing support and outreach to military veterans.
“Support for military veterans transitioning into agriculture exploded after the 2014 Farm Bill thanks to the programs and projects that were funded through Section 2501, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and the Office for Advocacy and Outreach for Veteran and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers,” said Michael O’Gorman, Executive Director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. “Bringing these programs together under one roof, with sustained funding, is the sort of commitment our veterans deserve as they continue serving our country through agriculture.”
While the 2014 Farm Bill may have expanded the Section 2501 program’s eligibility base, it also severely weakened the program by cutting funding in half. By combining Section 2501 and BFRDP into the FOTO program in the next farm bill, Congress has an opportunity to not just restore, but to scale up and permanently protect investments in the future of American agriculture.
“Why shouldn’t we, in this great country, particularly not since agriculture is so important to us, why shouldn’t we help our transitioning veterans to find a way into farming?” asked retired Army Colonel and President of S.A.V.E. Gary LaGrange in an interview with NSAC. “BFRDP and USDA’s new Ag Vets program have been central to the work we do here. Though we have some donated funds, the grants from these programs have been key to helping us develop the programs that we have and that we will have in the future. That support is central to us and to our work, and most importantly it’s central to the lives of the young men and women that we serve.”
LaGrange was born on a farm in Iowa and spent most of his youth on a farm in Minnesota before he joined the U.S. Army. After spending 28 years in the service and becoming disabled in Vietnam, LaGrange returned to civilian life with a passion to help fellow veterans find new meaning and purpose through careers in agriculture. Today, S.A.V.E. operates a training farm and several programs that provide veterans with the tools and experience they need to get started on the road to farming. With support from the BFRDP and Ag Vets program and in partnership with Kansas State University, S.A.V.E. will launch a fully accredited farmer-training program in January 2019; 15 transitioning veterans are already signed up to be the program’s inaugural class.
BFRDP has also been indispensable to the work of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), a national nonprofit that champions small-scale, local, and sustainable solutions to reduce poverty, promote healthy communities, and protect natural resources.
“The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program has been a vital resource for Armed to Farm, NCAT’s sustainable agriculture training program for military veterans,” said Executive Director Steve Thompson. “The veterans who complete the week-long Armed to Farm training go on to operate successful farming and ranching businesses that strengthen their communities. They employ other veterans on their farms and ranches, mentor other farmer-veterans, feed their neighbors, and educate their communities about healthy, locally grown food. We can’t think of a better way to honor their continued service to our country than by ensuring permanent support for veterans through inclusion of the new Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach program in the 2018 Farm Bill.”
With only weeks left in the lame-duck session and the next farm bill still in negotiation, Congress must move swiftly to ensure our veteran farmers and would-be veteran farmers are not left out. This Veteran’s Day, we should honor the men and women who have served our country by helping them to find their next mission: feeding their fellow Americans.
“We need Congress to include FOTO in the next farm bill because bringing up the next generation of producers is critical to saving our farms and farm families,” said LaGrange. “It just makes sense to do so. It’s the right thing to do.”
–National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
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