Jan 7, 2019
Virginia State plants military veterans in industry

Retired Army Lt. Col. James T. Edwards travels between military base out-processing centers to Army Reserve stations and even a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, hoping to sign up more volunteers.

Clifton A. Slade of Virginia’s Surry County, helps educate veterans and disadvantaged groups
in the Virginia State University’s Small Farm Outreach program. Photos: Susan Cheek

Volunteers, that is, willing to be trained as growers and farmers in civilian life.

“It’s about a 10- to 20-minute spiel,” Edwards said. Veterans at the out-processing centers have several job opportunities presented to them. A professional with nearly 28 years in the Army, Edwards is able to speak the language of others in the military, while detailing what programs, training and tools are available for the veterans if they try agriculture.

Virginia State University (VSU) recently received a $200,000 grant from the USDA to help socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers in the state.
VSU’s funding is part of $9.4 million in grants announced in October by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (also called the 2501 Program) “ensure veterans and underserved farmers and ranchers are well-positioned to start their careers in agriculture and continue to give back to the American people,” Perdue said in a statement announcing the grant.

At VSU, nearly 60 farm veterans are on their way toward futures in agriculture through a program that emphasizes training and farm planning.

“They’re coming in at all different levels,” said William A. Crutchfield, director of the Small Farm Outreach Program. Some have grown up on family farms and are hoping to buy into the family business, a few are interested in going back to college for an agricultural degree while others have even more to learn.

“I’ve got one gentleman, he’s never farmed before, he’s got three acres of land,” Edwards said. The veteran has got a farm number and has had soil samples taken, but still has to set up where he will sell his crop.

Edwards said he’s trying to talk the man into planting a smaller section the first year – just a few beds, maybe half an acre.

“Don’t do it without all the things at once,” Edwards said. “You may lose a crop.”

Occasionally, a new grower needs to be talked out of purchasing a farm that’s not worth the price or doesn’t fit in with the rest of the grower’s business plan.

That’s one reason VSU’s program includes a Whole Farm Planning Workshop, so prospective growers can plan every detail of their farm operation.

“It’s still business and you should still look at it from a realistic, holistic approach,” said Small Farm Outreach Agent Susan Cheek. “I think a lot of these farmers forget they need to feed themselves as well.”

Veterans are paired with a small farm outreach agent as well as a farmer mentor and receive practical, hands-on field training.

Later on in the process, they are paired with a small farm outreach agent like Cheek as well as a farmer mentor and receive practical, hands-on field training. Group workshops later in the project include a variety of topics such as finance and business management, stress management, beekeeping, taxes and QuickBooks.

“How to get funding is a big question,” Cheek said. “We can’t give them money, but we can give them resources.”

Veterans and socially disadvantaged growers can qualify for low-interest microloans from the USDA up to $50,000, but veterans often need help completing the lengthy loan application. There is also the possibility of an active grower qualifying for a demonstration project, where they would be given materials or equipment, such as an irrigation system, and host a demonstration for less-experienced growers – in such a case, the grower can keep the materials and the profits from the growing season.

The planning, training and mentoring help the growers prepare for their new life. Cheek, who served in the Army Reserve, said in her own experience, finishing one’s military service brings a desire for an outlet or new enterprise.

“You need to make life normal again,” she said.

That drive to quickly make life normal again is balanced with the fact that veterans fully understand the benefit of planning out any successful operation.

“Most veterans, they know how to accomplish a mission,” Edwards said. “They have plans.”

– Stephen Kloosterman, FGN Associate Editor

Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment in a series of stories about veterans in specialty crop agriculture. Earlier stories in the series are below: 

A combat veteran’s journey toward growing, selling produce

Resources help veterans find extended service



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