After The Battle, The Harvest: Programs Help Vets Move Into Farming
Photos courtesy of Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture
Tor Peery grew up in a farming community in upstate New York, baling hay in the summers. He never thought he'd want to go back to that life.
Three deployments with the U.S. Marine Corps — including a tough tour in Helmand, Afghanistan — changed his mind.
"So many years I've been in the world of destruction," he says. "Being infantry and in the Marine Corps, I've destroyed so many things. I just want to create now."
Now Peery is learning the craft and business of farming at the Arcadia Center For Sustainable Food And Agriculture. He's a "reservist," which means he shows up one weekend a month, plus two weeks during the growing season. Arcadia also has one full-time, year-long fellowship. This spring, Arcadia volunteers, along with vets from the group The Mission Continues, built a 60-foot hoop-house in one day, barn-raising style.
Arcadia, like dozens of organizations across the country, is training veterans to be farmers. And farming seems to be a good fit for vets, says Pam Hess, who directs Arcadia, judging by how fast the new greenhouse went up.
"Thirty-five, 40 people who have never worked together before managed to put together a greenhouse — [something which] none had ever done before," she says.
And the thing is, the country could really use a few good farmers. At the moment, there are enough farmers to feed the nation. They're getting older, though: The average age for American farmers is 58, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
So as thousands of younger Americans leave the military — which has been downsizing lately — the USDA would like them to consider carrying the torch as older farmers start to retire. The department even has a military veterans liaison, Lanon Baccam.
"A disproportionate amount of military vets come from rural America and serve," notes Baccam, himself an Afghanistan vet. In fact — while only 17 percent of Americans live in rural areas, people from rural communities make up 40 percent of the military. "Many want to go back to those communities, and we want to help them when they get there," Baccam says.
The USDA has put a half-billion dollars into loans and other help for veteran farmers to buy land and equipment since 2009.
"We'd like to help them start their own operations, and get on these farms that may be ready to turn over," Baccam says. "And there are benefits to farming or ranching that we know exist that you can't see — the therapeutic benefits of working the land."
At Arcadia, Pam Hess says the best therapy is to stay connected with other veterans, and find a successful career post-military.
"So many [vets] are looking for really meaningful work, where effort in equals success out," she notes. But she agrees that a lot of vets can't get that in an office. "Especially the combat folks, they're outdoor cats now. They don't want to be in a tie, in a cubicle taking orders from someone," she says.
Indeed, being outdoors was the biggest things that Laron Murrell — this year's full-time fellow at Arcadia — missed after leaving the Army. After two tours to Iraq, he tried a desk job.
"It just wasn't fulfilling," he says. "When I leave [the farm] it's like - whew! I'm excited again. It's put the excitement back in my life."
After he completes his fellowship, Murrell is hoping to revive a 50-acre family farm back in North Carolina. He knows that's going to be a lot of hard work: rough conditions, back-breaking labor, bad weather, long hours. But he figures it can't really top his Iraq deployments.
"I made it through that," Murrell says. "What kinds of conditions can you really put me in?"