In three different positions with organic food companies, Michael O’Gorman made his mark, becoming responsible for $200 million in organic produce over a 40-year period. When 9/11 hit, his life started to move in another direction. His daughter was working across from the Trade Center when the planes hit. His son responded by joining the military. The effect on his children’s lives prompted O’Gorman to see how he could help the men and women who served his country.
What he discovered—and where he could help—was addressing the need for meaningful employment for many of the returning vets. Learning that veterans made excellent passionate farmers, O’Gorman was approached to expand The Farmer Veteran Coalition. This coalition supports veterans in all types of farming, with the majority of veterans today interested in organic, grass-fed or animal products, according to O’Gorman.
He says vets who take on farming treat it like the serious mission that their military service entailed. And in that vein, safe, healthy food becomes an important part of national security. “Many have a belief in organic from a personal health standpoint. Their passion about organics is very, very strong,” says O’Gorman, who describes this second generation of organic farmers as a much broader demographic than the first generation.
Most of the vets who contact this organization are new to agriculture, but a high percentage come from rural areas and go back to rural areas after their military service. Half have some access to land, either land they own or a family member’s they can use. Nearly three-fourths served since 9/11, while some go back to the Vietnam era. Over half have some degree of disability.
In 2009, the coalition’s first year, nine vets were assisted. Now, O’Gorman reports, the organization receives 3,000 new inquiries monthly.
Most of the coalition’s eight staff members are veterans and all have agriculture degrees or experience. Veterans fill out a form and a staff member contacts them to discuss how they can be assisted. The organization sends vets to conferences, including 20 who recently attended the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse WI.
“What makes us bigger is so many groups want to help veterans. For example, the American Livestock Conservancy provides helps for vets interested in livestock, and the organic industry, such as UNFI, earmarks money and helps with certification costs,” says O’Gorman.
Because of confusion regarding the certification process, the coalition is working with CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) to produce three webinars to assist veterans on certification. CCOF also aids veterans in waiving the first year of certification.
Matt Smiley, a former paratrooper and army medic in Iraq, met O’Gorman while attending UC Davis’ Sustainable Agriculture program. In community college, the vet had started a half-acre market garden and noticed the positive effect working the land had on his war experiences as a medic.
O’Gorman was impressed by the young veteran and asked him to start working at the organization eight hours a week. The young veteran now manages the Farmer Veteran Coalition’s Growing Careers pilot program—paid internships that place veterans into organic farms in California. He also works part-time as a farm manager for Jacobs Farms/Del Cabo, while finishing his degree.
“I feel of service to my country again by feeding it,” Smiley says. “In the military, you’re instilled with the need to take care of your country. As a veteran, this taking care of our land and on a day-to-day basis producing food that is nutritious and healthy—I want to be part of that. It’s another way of serving my country and helping other veterans again.”
Smiley says his peers are very aware of organic. “Our generation is aware of how unsustainable farming has become, how we are abusing our soils, and the need to care for our land,” he says.
Aiding young farmers
The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) is another organization helping young people enter farming. Citing an average farmer age of 58, this organization works with young people, advocating for policies that impact young farmers and facilitating growth through young farmer chapters. Its goal: to add 25,000 young farmers to U.S. agriculture by 2022.
NYFC serves farmers and potential farmers of all types, but the organization’s Communications Director Chelsey Simpson says that young people coming into farming are largely interested in farming small-scale, organic or sustainable.
“They want to work with their hands, they want to work on the farm. Also, it’s more realistic to purchase or lease 10 or 50 or 100 acres to grow a diversified crop or maybe raise some dairy goats than to have 10,000 commercial acres to enter the international commodity market. Young people see the market moving more towards organic or sustainable or direct to consumer sales. And they know they can make more money selling through a farmers’ market or CSA.”
Ironwood Farm, a certified organic vegetable and fruit farm in Ghent, New York, is a unique partnership of three young women who sell to farmers’ markets, CSAs and to restaurants and shops in the Hudson Valley. One of the partners, Jenny Parker, said the three women all worked six to seven years on farms or in marketing before joining together.
“Through our experience, and the help of many mentors, we knew we wanted to farm organically. Being certified organic meets our needs, both financially, and as responsible stewards of the land. But there are also emotional and human needs for learning and building community. We feel that’s part of being organic.”
Unlike many farmers who take the winter off, they grow and sell greens in a winter market that is lucrative in their area. Because this means year-round work with no time off, they designed a work schedule that allows each partner one month off during their winter CSA market.
Parker attributes their success to many organizations and helpful mentors along the way. NYFC helped them with marketing and connecting with the young farmer community. Carrot Project helped them obtain an operating loan. A local land conservancy, the Columbia Land Conservancy, was crucial in matching them with a landowner to lease. A regional farmers’ non-profit association provided technical assistance, while they obtained a state farmers grant to building infrastructure.
Parker feels very hopeful for young organic farmers. “In Columbia County, we have tons of young farmers here, and there are an increasing number of programs to access money and land,” she says. //
Top Photo: From left, Aliyah Brandt, Lauren Jones and Jenny Parker, with Parker’s dog Loretta, farm organically together on Ironwood Farm. Photo by Kenneth Gabrielsen Photography.