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 ABCNews.com 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.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 ABCNews.com. "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.
"You could only do so much with a gun," said Mccue, who also served in the Peace Corps in Niger and studied at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz after leaving the military.He acknowledged that soldiering was a very important job -- but so were other things like agriculture. Mccue, who attended the Santa Monica fair, noticed there were more young veterans like himself getting into farming.
Calling himself "just a grunt," Mccue said it really amused him to share his farming knowledge with other soldiers-turned-farmers who he considered "elite" and "really good soldiers."
Apart from addressing issues in the country's agricultural industry, O'Gorman said farming is a good way to help soliders with personal challenges.
For example, he said he heard a story of an alcoholic, drug-addicted veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who immediately sobered up when he started working on a farm.
And when O'Gorman hears talk about how healing it is for returning soldiers to work outside with plants and animals, O'Gorman said he thinks there's another element: "What's real healing is finding that necessary work that is needed."