Young Veterans Making Agriculture Next Mission

The USDA was one of the exhibitors at the job fair. Through its recently established Office of Advocacy and Outreach, the department is working with various states, like Nebraska, to create programs that help veterans make the transition into agricultural jobs.

The office, created with the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, targets higher education programs and reaches out to new farmers and ranchers, and "socially disadvantaged farmers," said Caleb Weaver, a USDA spokesman.

The effort to recruit more veterans to agriculture comes not only while their unemployment rates are high, but also as populations in more than 700 rural counties nationwide have dropped by 10 percent.

In addition, the number of deaths is greater than the number of births in half these counties, said sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, authors of "Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America."

According to USDA estimates, 70 percent of American ranch and farm land will change hands over the next 20 years.

Program Aims to Help Rebuild Rural America

The "Combat Boots" program is the brainchild not only of Dwyer, but also of Weldon Sleight, the dean of the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, and associate dean Richard Mestas, a veteran of the first Gulf War. Mestas said it was Dwyer who first approached Sleight about a program.

Mestas frames the program as a mission to rejuvenate rural American communities.

"There are a lot of veteran farmers," Mestas told "If you go to any American Legion meeting in Nebraska, you'll find nothing but veteran farmers. They are everywhere. However, I think the situation has been over the past, since World War II, there's been basically this rural flight going on: rural communities getting smaller, smaller and smaller."

In this context, the program's effort to recruit veterans to agriculture is a new approach, said Mestas.

Mestas said the specifics of military training make veterans well-equipped for farming.

"They have leadership skills, a can-do attitude and this makes them perfect for it," he said, adding that veterans are also used to working outdoors and are aware of the importance of preserving natural resources.

The "Combat Boots" advertising campaign is set to start sometime this month, but the program is already attracting students, with approximately 40 inquiries.

Matthew Richard Mccue, 28, co-owns Shooting Star CSA in Fairfield California, a 10-acre farm around 30 miles from Berkeley that already has 160 members in its second year of operation.

Mccue served in the Army from February 2001 to February 2005. A sergeant in the infantry, he spent one year in Iraq from around March 2003 to March 2004. During that time, his responsibilities included manning checkpoints, which he called "nasty and ridiculous."

Other Veterans Look to Farming: 'You Could Only Do So Much With a Gun'

Still, he said he was struck by the Iraqi farmers who offered soldiers watermelons on the roadside at these checkpoints.

"I remember how proud and unafraid a lot of the farmers were across the cultural divide," he said.

Growing up in the suburbs of Albuquerque, N.M., Mccue's decision to get into farming didn't come at one decisive moment, but built up over time.

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