From The Battlefield to the Farm Field

Veterans are trading the desert sands of Iraq and Afghanistan for the fertile dirt of home.

Microgrants for farming military vets can change the course of a business. (Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images)

Jan 11, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Ever since military veterans began to stream home from the waning wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we've been keeping our eye on what kinds of work they end up doing after their service ends. For some, physical injuries have made reentering the workforce difficult or even impossible. For others, lingering posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms made traditional nine-to-five desk jobs unmanageable.

As we reported before, a number of veterans have found solace (and successful careers) in farming. What's better is that we’re seeing signs that this is a trend with staying power—good news, given that the Department of Labor estimates 1.5 million service members will leave the military in the next five years.

There’s plenty of help out there for veterans interested in farming. Groups like Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program, Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots, and the Farmer Veteran Coalition, provide training, funding and support to get veterans working again, often in the rural communities they call home.

This year alone, the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) is expected to hand out $200,000 in microgrants. (FVC’s biggest funder is the Bob Woodruff Foundation.) Grants aren’t simply for the asking, though. FVC helps veterans develop rock-solid business plans and connects applicants with mentors to ensure success. Not all of the grants go towards traditional farming either.

“It’s amazing what a microgrant can do,” Tia Christopher, spokesperson for FVC tells TakePart. For example, a veteran in Indiana launched an aquaponics business and now raises tilapia. A grant to a veteran in Texas helped him revive his family’s pecan farm. In Maryland, FVC helped a veteran launch a now successful vermicompost business, and a FVC-funded veteran in Brooklyn helped set up a garden for refugees.

For returning Army veteran Terrell Spencer, support from the Farmer Veteran Coalition helped him score a much-needed refurbished tractor. “That $5,000 did more good than a lifetime of medication and therapy,” he says. “Our business has grown exponentially because of it.”

Today, Spencer raises nearly 10,000 pastured chickens at Across The Creek Farm in West Fork, Arkansas, and is committed to helping other returning veterans learn valuable farming skills. Of the four interns currently working on his farm, three are military veterans. Spencer is active with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and is helping to organize a week-long training program called Armed To Farm scheduled for this June. That program will bring two-dozen veterans together to experience hands-on training.

In addition to job skills, the emotional impact learning to work the land can have on returning veterans is breathtaking. When a veteran that had been interning at Across The Creek Farm began looking for his own land to farm, he told Spencer that he finally had skills that were meant for something other than killing people.

“I knew that exact feeling,” said Spencer, who returned from Iraq with raging PTSD. “I spent those first months turning the woods on my farm into pasture. I took my aggression out on oak trees instead of my family.”

Christopher says she wishes more people would understand how much even a small financial bump can do. “Five thousand dollars is barely any money, and yet, look at Terrell Spencer. It’s changed everything.”