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As aging farmers retire, state programs offer military veterans chance at careers in agriculture

by Carolyn Orr ~ December 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
America’s farmers are aging, fast.
According to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census, the average age is now 58, up from 50 in 1982 and now nearing the average retirement age in this country (it is 62, a recent Gallup poll found). But there might be a younger group that could at least be part of the nation’s next generation of farmers — military veterans, particularly those seeking new career opportunities as they return from service overseas.
Connecting these veterans to careers as farmers or to jobs in agriculture is the goal of various new programs popping up across the Midwest.
In Nebraska, a university-led initiative known as “Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots" is matching veterans with farmers or ranchers who want transition or succession plans in place for their operations. In Michigan, under a residential training program known as Vets to Ag, individuals are paid as they get trained and work in various agricultural business settings — from landscape management to food processing. Those who successfully complete the training receive a certificate from Michigan State University. (The program is primarily for homeless veterans.)
Minnesota legislators, meanwhile, recently appropriated money ($175,000 over each of the next two years) for a pilot program that will offer veterans four to eight weeks of training in careers related to agriculture and food production, processing and distribution.
And in states such as Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, farmers who are also veterans are able to take part in a certification and branding program known as “Homegrown by Heroes.”
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is partnering with the Farmer Veteran Coalition to offer targeted training for beginning farmers. Four workshops have been held so far in Iowa and Michigan. They teach participants how to improve business planning, access capital, and manage risks associated with small farm operations.
The USDA also gives preference to veterans in several of its grant and loan programs, and agricultural producers receive incentives for selling or leasing land to veterans (via the Conservation Reserve and Transition Incentives programs).
In Iowa, which has more farms than any other state in the Midwest (88,637), a public-private partnership was launched by the Legislature one year ago (SF 303) to help veterans find jobs in agriculture or other careers.
Under the law, state Sen. Mary Jo Wilhelm says, Iowa cities and counties develop their own incentive and welcome packages, including commitments from area businesses to hire veterans. Twenty counties and five cities have been designated as “Home Base” communities as of late 2015.


Article written by Carolyn Orr, CSG Midwest staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.