By Katie Fisher, government relations intern, National Farmers Union
On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies met to discuss the opportunities for military veterans in agriculture. Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) called upon five witnesses to testify about their personal experiences with veterans in agriculture, and Montana Farmers Union member Paul Kanning was one of the five to testify. The committee held the hearing to gain insight as to the successes of current programs offered for military veterans seeking to go into agriculture, as well as receive feedback of what may not be working quite as planned.
The overall positive atmosphere in the hearing room prompted a productive discussion between the Senators and the five witnesses. A common theme throughout the hearing was that of shared values between the military and those who grew up in rural America. Mr. Lanon Baccam, USDA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, as well as the Department’s Military Veterans Agriculture Liaison, was the first to mention this in his testimony. He also spoke briefly about the many programs that the USDA has to offer, stating, “Since 2009, USDA has provided $466.8 million in farm loans to help 3,991 veterans purchase farmland, buy equipment, and make repairs and upgrades.” He emphasized the need to target people before they exit the military, so they know of the resources available in helping them transition into agriculture when returning home.
Gary LaGrange, president of the Soldier Agriculture Vocation Education (SAVE) program, presented a unique and innovative solution to address the gap between those wishing to enter into agriculture after returning from the military and the succession challenge in rural America. He said that the SAVE program plans to do this by addressing transition assistance, training, therapy and succession assistance on a training farm. In doing so, veterans and service members will be prepared to work on, manage, and one day own a farm of their own. “Our vision and plan is to develop a model training farm that can be replicated on all land grant universities that will graduate hundreds of new farmers each year,” he said.
One of the SAVE soldiers, John Ulrick, was also on the stand to testify. John went through a class that Gary offered working with honey bees shortly after being declared unfit for continued duty with the U.S. Army, saying that it helped him to think about something positive and learn something new. Speaking to the struggles of depression and PTSD that most veterans will encounter, John said that working with livestock is similar to having a service dog as a companion, and he can’t think of a better way to help veterans transition into life after the military than to do so by learning how to farm. To learn more about the SAVE farm, click here.
Montana Farmers Union member Paul Kanning spoke of all the programs he has utilized in the past 4 years of working on his 103-year-old family farm. Paul, a fourth generation farmer, returned to the farm after spending two decades serving in the U.S. Air Force and retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. Also highlighting the similarities between the military and farming, he spoke of the obstacles that he faced returning to the farm, but also of the opportunities he seized that were offered to military veterans and beginning farmers. A list of the veteran-related benefits he utilized includes: the Veteran Farmer/Rancher Recognition in the Agriculture Act of 2014; Veteran Preference and Priorities; Microloan Assistance; Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program Grant; Outreach and Assistance Program for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers; Land Transition Incentives; Military Retirement Income; Military Healthcare; and the Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program.
The non-veteran related benefits he highlighted as also beneficial to veterans are: USDA conservation programs, USDA ARC program, Beginning Farmer and Rancher Benefits for Federal Crop Insurane; USDA Rural Development Grants, agricultural research programs, and additional training and education programs. In addition to Farmers Union, Kanning also noted the Farmer Veterans Coalition as especially helpful to vets interested in farming. As one can clearly see, Paul has plenty of experience with different programs, making his testimony extremely valuable to the committee in offering recommendations for funding changes.
Not all of the panelists were former military. Alison Perry of central Oregon spoke of her farm that is available to the 20,000 veterans in her county, offered as a sort of “hub” and therapeutic outlet. Alison is a Licensed Professional Counselor and spent six years working as a trauma therapist within the VA. It was there that she realized the need for “innovative ways that veterans can heal and continue to positively serve our nation.” Echoing the benefits of agriculture for veterans, Alison highlighted the positive effect that being outdoors, engaging in physical activity, having concrete tasks to focus on, and working with purpose has on veterans that are otherwise deemed unable to work by the healthcare system. Requesting that the USDA will make some of their programs available to organizations and not just individuals, Alison is hopeful that the long-term vision of the farm will be a vocational training center, much like the SAVE farm.
One thing was certain by the end of this hearing: all were in agreement that more information and funding need to be made available to help military veterans transition into agriculture. The benefits of farming for veterans with depression or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the similarities between the military and agriculture, and the desire to bring in a new generation to rural America are all strong components of the request for increased funding for programs. The President’s budget proposed a number of increases for enhancement of opportunities for military veterans in rural America, that will hopefully lead to positive changes in the future.
For more information and to see the testimonies directly from their source, click here.