According to U.S. Census figures, for every two farmers that retire, only one young farmer is taking their place. Those same census data indicate the average age of the American farmer is about 57 years old. Regardless how you do the math, the numbers indicate farming in America is facing a serious crisis in the years ahead as food demand rises and the number of farms decline.
Add to that an alarming study by the Carsey Institute, a think tank at the University of New Hampshire, that indicates only 24 percent of employed young adults age 18 to 24 hold full-time jobs in rural communities. The study concludes that traditional rural employment in farming, logging, mining, fishing and small manufacturing have been declining for many years and the trend is expected to continue.
Chris Ritthaler, a former Marine and now the Veteran Outreach Coordinator for the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, says there may be a solution that could help both the agriculture industry and returning veterans looking for jobs or opportunities. According to the Coalition, a group helping returning Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans find either a business opportunity or career in the U.S. agricultural industry, soldiers from rural areas have the toughest time returning to civilian life and a job in rural America.
“And worse, combat soldiers from rural areas suffer a disproportionate number of casualties than other groups serving in combat zones. We are working to help these veterans find rural opportunities that that will also offset the loss of farms and farmers in America,” he says.
According to the New Hampshire study, during times of war and conflict, “all Americans are expected to sacrifice and rural Americans have always stepped forward to do their part in past wars and national emergencies.”
Ritthaler says helping veterans from rural communities reintegrate into the agriculture industry may address two problems at the same time.
Paul Reickoff, Executive Director of Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America, agrees. He says veterans returning to rural communities are having the hardest time reintegrating into civilian life as communities lack both viable employment opportunities and access to needed veteran services.
“Our Coalition founder, Michael O’Gorman, has been a pioneering organic farmer for over forty years. He has worked with some of the nation’s largest organic vegetable companies, including TKO Farms, Mission Organics (Natural Selection Foods) and others, and he understands there is a trend to import more and more foreign fruits and vegetables. But we believe there are niche markets for sustainable agriculture that many veterans can fill,” Ritthaler says.
“And we are also helping veterans to find agricultural jobs—from crop management to working with packers and distributors—and we offer mentoring programs, financial grants, and resource connections to help them get started.”
While the Coalition is “still in its infancy stage,” it has already helped many veterans find jobs, start careers and establish farming operations. Consider Adam Burke, a combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient who was wounded in battle during a 15-month tour in Iraq. Burke established the Red, White and Blueberry Farm near Jacksonville, Florida.
According to the company Web site, the farm helps disabled combat veterans reintegrate back into society through the use of horticulture therapy, while working together in a relaxed, open environment. Burke hires disabled vets who are trying to integrate back into civilian society and provides vocational therapy to those who need it the most.
Other success stories for the coalition include two poultry operations near Fayetteville, Arkansas, and a planned organic vegetable farming operation outside the Dallas-Ft. Worth area designed to provide fresh vegetables to urban dwellers with a farm-to-market enterprise.
“We are also helping many vets to get certifications for industry jobs and can connect them with university programs where they can lay a foundation for a career path in the ag industry,” Ritthaler adds.
“Returning from a theater of war and being released back into civilian society can be a challenge for many and we hope that our efforts will help many vets get back to their roots and learn to be positive and productive role models for others who will follow,” he says.
With a massive withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq scheduled in December, more and more veterans will begin to re-enter society as civilians and many will find high unemployment and a tough job market waiting when they return home. Ritthaler hopes the Farmer-Veteran Coalition can help both veterans and the agriculture industry in the months and years ahead.