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Veterans Feed the Very Communities They Left to Serve

Viewpoints / Focus on Agriculture November 10, 2021

Credit: AFBF: Mike Tomko 

By Natalie Monroe @FarmVetCo

“I remember the moment, standing in Jim Cochran’s organic strawberry field overlooking the Pacific Ocean,” reflects the founder of Farmer Veteran Coalition, Michael O’Gorman.

“Jim had served during Vietnam. The three women standing with us – Mary Tillman, Dolores Kesterman and Nadia McCaffrey – all lost their sons in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Fatalities were high in 2007, and the country was deeply divided. Starting a campaign to create viable careers and places to heal on our nation’s farms for men and women returning from war felt electric. 

FVC has pioneered an entire military-to-agriculture movement.

This idea sprouted roots in 2008 when O’Gorman, a lifelong farmer, started FVC in the back of his pick-up truck. Our plan was simple: find a way to help these veterans as they return to the communities they left to serve, and then tell their story. 

Now FVC has pioneered an entire military-to-agriculture movement. Representing members in all 50 states, our nonprofit develops meaningful careers for veterans of our Armed Forces who pursue careers in agriculture. Last month we welcomed our 30,000th veteran member.

“It’s an absolute natural fit” as O’Gorman puts it.

We recognize that agriculture additionally offers purpose, opportunity, and physical and psychological benefits. For many veterans, this is the difference-maker in their civilian re-integration.

“Farm Bureau is historically one of FVC’s strongest supporters,” shares Jeanette Lombardo, who took over as executive director in 2020. “We value this partnership that allows us to jointly help our veterans and their families transition into agriculture. The need in our rural communities is great.”

This spring, more than 100 farmer veterans learned they were selected to be awarded equipment through the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund, one of FVC’s three primary in-house programs. The grant supports veterans in their early years of farming and ranching.

“We directly purchase a piece of equipment the farmer has identified as being critical,” explains Lombardo. “Our veterans put their lives on the line to protect us. It’s an honor to help them grow their operations so they can feed their communities.”

Awardees received deliveries of greenhouses and grow tents, walk-in coolers and cold storage units, milking systems, water filtration systems and honey extractors. Other unique requests this year included a mushroom substrate steamer and a lavender bud stripper.

In the 11 years of the program, more than 800 veterans have benefitted with $3.5 million in equipment distributed.

Heading into Veterans Day, our team is celebrating. Last month at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, FVC was awarded ownership of the Homegrown By Heroes trademarks. Originally founded by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture in 2013, Homegrown By Heroes is the official farmer veteran branding program of America. It certifies ranchers, farmers and fisherman of all military eras to sell their product as veteran owned and produced, with the label informing consumers as much. It’s a marketing tool to distinguish product in a competitive marketplace.

Although FVC has promoted and administered the label nationwide in all other 49 states since 2013, KDA now relinquished full ownership. With this, we anticipate expanding the program beyond the 2,000 members currently certified.

As the year closes, we are grateful for Farm Bureau’s sponsorship of our Farmer Veteran Stakeholders Conference. The principal symposium for fostering the collaboration of the farming and military communities, this event is consistently the most meaningful gathering of our community. “Farm to Market: Opportunity Knocks” will take place in two regional conferences this year: Nov. 18 in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Dec. 10 in Tacoma, Washington. We hope you will join us there.

Natalie Monroe is communications director of Farmer Veteran Coalition. The nation’s largest nonprofit organization assisting veterans and active duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces embark on careers in agriculture, FVC simultaneously cultivates the next generation of farmers and food leaders. Learn more at www.farmvetco.org.

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