Farmer veterans from across the country came together recently at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, for the largest gathering of military veteran farmers in the nation. Three hundred farmer veterans, including the agricultural, governmental and nonprofit groups that support them, attended the conference which featuring guest panels, distinguished speakers, educational tracks, farm visits and networking.
This year’s conference, the third annual, was themed “United We Farm” and was hosted in partnership with Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan and Michigan State University’s Vets to Ag program.
“Our national conferences have been invaluable to building this important farmer veteran movement,” said FVC Director Michael O’Gorman. “We’ve seen dialogue launched between our federal partners turn into national policy. We’ve seen important insight into what makes farming healing for veterans turn into valuable research. And we’ve seen the veterans themselves form a supportive community that has helped them immensely in their individual endeavors.”
Both beginning and experienced farmers benefitted from the conference. For Army veteran Eric Wilson, who is in middle of a four-month internship at Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo in San Jose, California, being around other veterans and gaining first-hand knowledge was most useful.
“My favorite part of the stakeholders conference has been connecting with other veterans,” said the former combat medic and Afghanistan veteran. “As a beginning farmer, I don’t have a lot of experience and it’s amazing to hear other people’s wisdom and advice, sitting in on the workshops, listening to the panels. Everything has been completely amazing.”
For the third year, leaders in the Federal government discussed what their departments are doing – and can do – to support veterans transitioning to agriculture. The Veterans Administration was represented for the first time this year, with Matthew Collier, Special Assistant to the Secretary. He was joined by Lanon Baccam, Deputy Under Secretary and Military Veterans Agricultural Liaison at the USDA; Michael Michaud, Assistant Secretary at the Department of Labor; Jaime Wood, Director of Policy and Engagement at the SBA; and Michael Miller, Director of Private and Public Engagement at the Department of Defense.
All panelists expressed the importance of carrying the progress made on behalf of the nation’s farmer veterans forward into the next administration.
Six farmers shared their stories on the Successful Farmer Veteran panel. Sarah Orban, who served in Iraq, taps 10,000 maple trees in upstate Michigan with her husband and fellow veteran. Combat-injured Afghanistan veteran, Davon Goodwin, took over a 250-acre farm in North Carolina and raises livestock and muscadine grapes. Damon Helton found his way into ranching in Arkansas after five deployments with the Army Rangers. Jed Welder built up close to 900 acres of row crops and hops after 22 years in both the Army and the Marines. And Steve and Bridget Tennes raise organic apples together in Charlotte, Michigan after serving in the Marines and Army respectively. All of the panelists proudly display the Homegrown By Heroes label on their products.
Other highlights of the conference included the keynote speech by Will Allen of Growing Power, an update on findings from a groundbreaking study by Karen Dahan-Besterman, PhD., R.D., on the healing effects of farming for military veterans, and the introduction of new FVC chapters in New York, West Virginia, Texas and Washington State.
The USDA was one of the sponsors.