By U.S. Congressman Tim Walz (MN-01)
By now folks across the country are well aware that the average age of American farmers and ranchers is just over 58 years old. Less well known is the fact that 200,000 military personnel are discharged from the armed services each year. As a Member of Congress who serves on the House Agriculture, Armed Services, and Veterans Affairs Committees, I see a compelling opportunity at the intersection of both populations.
Agriculture is in desperate need of an infusion of new farmers and ranchers. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking to add 100,000 new farmers to agriculture in the coming years. Retiring farmers without viable succession plans are weighing what to do with vast tracts of land across this country, and as older farmers look to transition, and rural communities continue to empty out, farming and ranching’s future looks more unstable.
Meanwhile, the veteran community faces its own set of unique challenges. Of the 2.7 million service members who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, at least 970,000 veterans have some degree of officially recognized disability. Recent reports suggest that such figures significantly underestimate the actual extent of injuries sustained. Following their separation from the military, our brave men and women look to new careers where they can utilize valuable skills they have learned in ways that serve their community.
Transitioning veterans into agriculture is not new; we have seen historical examples reaching back to the Old Testament. What is new is the research being done on the beneficial relationships between veterans and agriculture production. How learning to fix a Humvee can translate to fixing a tractor. How a connection to the land can bring peace. There is also a fresh commitment by the Administration and Congress for veterans in the post-9/11 environment. While there is room for improvement, and stories of unacceptable failures, this nation is investing significant resources across the spectrum.
As a member of Congress, I have made both improving the lives of veterans and the lives of farmers a priority. As a member of the Agriculture Committee, I worked across the aisle during the 2014 Farm Bill to expanded veteran’s access to conservation programs, financing opportunities, and educational training. We also created a new position within the USDA to further assist transitioning veterans, the military veteran’s agriculture liaison.
The Administration, through the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), has also taken meaningful steps to assist veterans who wish to transition to agriculture. On a macro level, the USDA and DOD have come together to add agriculture into the career training and counseling programs service members receive as they transition out of the military. The USDA has also designed an updated beginning farmer website to better prepare new entrants for the challenges and opportunities presented by agriculture. Within the redesign is a specific focus on veterans’ education.
Since 2009, USDA has provided $500 million in farm loans to help more than 7,581 veterans purchase farmland, buy equipment and make repairs and upgrades. USDA’s microloans, which offer smaller amounts of support to meet the needs of small- or niche-type farm operations, have also grown in popularity among veterans. Since it was launched in January 2013, the program has provided more than $32 million in support to help 1,474 veterans grow their farming businesses.
The framework being established in the public sector is also being matched in the private sector. As an example, the Farm Credit System, while unable to specifically identify the veteran status of its borrowers, provided $12.7 billion in new loans to beginning farmers, financially assisted standing up the Homegrown by Heroes Label, and provides extensive educational training to new and beginning veteran farmers. Groups like the Farmer Veteran Coalition are bringing together interested parties from across different sectors of the economy to aggregate resources and put more boots in the soil for veterans wanting to enter agriculture.
At the intersection of all these efforts is a landscape that is friendlier to veterans than ever before. There are decidedly more resources available to veterans wishing to transition thanks to the hard work of countless individuals, companies, and the government. The challenges within agriculture are significant, but the rewards are numerous. The sense of community, a more gradual transition eased by the holistic benefits of growing things, and the demanding needs of an ever expanding population, provide a mission, which veterans can excel at. In turn, we are all well served by having accomplished, competent, hard-working veterans feeding, fueling and clothing the world. These symbiotic possibilities that agriculture offers veterans and vice versa could begin to solve major challenges that our country currently faces.
I would urge members of Farmers Union to continue the work they are doing to bring veterans into agriculture. Whether it is through financial support for engaged organizations, mentoring individuals, becoming involved in the transition incentives program, or any other endeavor, the impact of such efforts are extremely meaningful. Congress will continue to work to better the lives of our veterans and their families, but it is individual efforts likes yours that will carry the initiatives over the finish line for the benefit of our country.