Young Veterans Making Agriculture Next Mission

More young soldiers consider agricultural jobs as they return to civilian life.

Byandrew Keshner
July 06, 2010, 9:50 AM

July 8, 2010— -- After he returned from a deployment in Ramadi, Iraq, Garrett Dwyer, a 24-year-old rancher, hit upon the idea that there was a "goldmine" in people like him.

Remembering the military's discipline and leadership skills that help him work his family's 5,200-acre ranch in Bartlett, Nebraska, Dwyer told that he considered returning veterans an "untapped resource" to power these agricultural communities.

Young soldiers returning to civilian life are facing high unemployment rates -- more than 20 percent. At the same time, the rural communities many veterans hail from are fighting off depletion as more and more residents move to cities.

"That discipline goes a long way as far as running an [agriculture] operation," said Dwyer, who served as an infantryman for the Marines and was deployed in Okinawa, Japan, before Iraq.

So Dwyer and deans at the University of Nebraska's Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, from which he graduated in May, came up with "Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots."

The program is an example of a new crop of nonprofits, college programs and a new office inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture that are all trying to ease a transition into the agricultural industry for young veterans.

Gearing up for its full launch this fall, "Combat Boots," at the college in Curtis -- a part of the University of Nebraska located about 225 miles from the main campus in Lincoln -- will be part job-training and part career-placement for military veterans interested in becoming farm or ranch owners.

The program, open to all military, veterans and family members, will offer on-campus classes and long-distance education. The goal is to partner with other agricultural schools within two or three years and, by next spring, to offer classes at military bases, school officials said.

Career Opportunities for Veteran-Farmers Grow Elsewhere

Rural communities are home to 45 percent of armed service members, so it's not surprising that "Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots" is not the only program taking shape across the country.

In Santa Monica, California, the Farmer-Veteran Coalition ran its second career fair on June 30. The event brought in about 85 exhibitors -- restaurants, local farms, produce distributors, non-profits and USDA representatives -- plus between 100 and 150 veterans looking for work and another 12 young veteran farmers, including Dwyer.

Michael O'Gorman, founder and executive director, said he believed the fair went well.

"We're trying to connect the two largest departments in the U.S. government, the military and the Department of Agriculture," said O'Gorman, who specialized in organic vegetable farming for 40 years and now works as an adviser for a large organic farm, in addition to his work with the Farmer-Veteran Coalition.

Now working with 65 farmers, the Farmer-Veteran Coalition helps train and provide job placement for veterans looking for careers all along the food chain, from the initial farming to the end product of a prepared meal. When the group, formally founded in February 2009 after already working for more than a year, ran its first career fair in March, organizers hoped for 50 veterans to show up and instead got 150, according to O'Gorman.

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.

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