Dennis Place is a big believer in U.S. Department of Agriculture loans that help veterans transition into agriculture.
Dennis, who served in Vietnam and retired as a captain from the Army, has used USDA programs throughout his ranching career to benefit his small cattle operation.
“I think it is kind of foolish not to participate in USDA programs,” Dennis says. “It takes time, and a lot of people don’t take the time to sit down and talk to their Farm Service Agency or USDA agent to see what is available.”
Dennis, who lives in Myakka City, Florida, grew up in Pennsylvania, where he spent summers and winters working on dairy farms.
“There was just something about it that I really enjoyed,” he says. “I really loved working with the animals and being around them.”
Dennis is one of many American veterans who work in agriculture. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there were 370,619 ranchers and farmers with prior military service.
Dennis says the industry landscape has changed in the past 25 years, and it’s much harder for small cattle producers to make ends meet today.
“It takes more cows today to make money than it did 25 years ago,” Dennis says.
Today, he says, if a husband and wife work a ranch, at least one of them has to also hold down a second job.
But, Dennis says, the cattle industry has also changed for the better in some ways.
“The genetic end of it has improved,” he says. “The meat is better today, the cattle are better, the genetic makeup is better. That has improved the quality of beef that hits the supermarkets or the restaurant table.”
Dennis, who runs about 120 cattle on his 175 acres, says if he were to recommend getting into the cattle business, it would be with a proviso.
“Unless someone has a lot of money to go into it, he is going to have to find a job because it is hard to make money on 175 acres,” he says.
Florida FSA State Executive Director Sherry McCorkle says her agency is always happy to talk to veterans interested in agriculture.
“We encourage veterans to stop by their local USDA service center or visit farmers.gov to learn more about available USDA programs,” she says.
USDA’s Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Risk Management Agency offer a variety of programs that provide peace of mind, access to capital, and tools for making improvements to farms and ranches.
“Your local FSA and NRCS staff members can talk you through available options, whether you’re looking for a loan or a conservation practice,” Sherry says.
Lourence Dormaier is one of many veterans who has reached out for assistance. When he returned home from Afghanistan in 2006 to his home near Ephrata in south-central Washington, he wasn’t sure what to do next.
After inheriting a small, 2-acre farm near Ephrata from his parents, he saw an opportunity.
“It was a dry corner of my parents’ 140-acre hay farm,” he says. “It had never been farmed.”
As he developed the property, Lourence worked during the day for a local hay-export firm and devoted his free time to his modest farm. He bought some angus heifers.
“For me and for a lot of veteran farmers, working in agriculture is very therapeutic,” Lourence says. “It has definitely helped me.”
Eventually, Lourence applied for a grant to build a greenhouse from USDA. The federal agency gives veterans trying to break into agriculture or expand their businesses special preference. The greenhouse grant was the first outside funding Lourence received.
The system Lourence built with the USDA grant is a 72- by 30-foot tunnel. It’s 16-feet tall at its highest point and features 4-foot side walls that can roll up during the hot summer months or down in cooler months.
“The concept of the tunnel is that it’s a season extension,” Lourence says. “I can plant about a month or two earlier than normal, and I will pull tomatoes usually through Thanksgiving. You don’t have to worry about the frost killing them later in the season.”
Lourence grows everything from melons to cucumbers to peppers and tomatoes.
“I wanted to provide quality food to local restaurants and individuals and provide a good income to allow me to raise my kids,” Lourence says.
A Coalition and Community
As Lourence’s business grew, he knew he wanted to share his story with other veterans who were interested in agriculture. He discovered the Farmers Veteran Coalition and started following it online.
The national nonprofit, nongovernmental organization provides support for veterans interested in transitioning from military service into agriculture careers. The coalition offers several support pathways for veterans interested in the agriculture industry, including the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund and a grant program that provides veterans financial assistance for agricultural ventures.
The Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund is a small grant program that provides direct assistance to veterans who are just getting started in farming or ranching. The Fellowship Fund does not give money directly to the veteran, but rather to third-party vendors for items the veteran has identified will make a difference in the launch of their farm business. Awards range from $1,000 to $5,000. More than $1.9 million has been awarded to veterans since 2011.
Lourence applied for and was awarded a $5,000 grant to acquire a tractor for his greenhouse through the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund.
“It has been a blessing because it cut down on a lot of labor time,” he says.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition sponsors chapters in nine states. Lourence is on the nonprofit’s board in Washington state.
“Veterans leaving active duty face many challenges, and USDA is here to help, whether veterans are starting their operations or growing them,” Sherry says. “Veteran farmers help us strengthen the American economy.”
The 2018 Farm Bill provides funding specifically to veterans. Two grant programs—the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program, and the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program—are initiatives with permanent funding of $30 million.
That amount will increase to $50 million by 2023. The Farm Bill also provides benefits and assistance to vets for down-payment loans, lower interest rates on loans and disaster assistance coverage.
While the grants are helpful, veterans interested in farming face other challenges. Finding land for new farmers is an ongoing challenge for a lot of people interested in agriculture, says Jason Alves, program manager for the Veterans Conservation Corps/Vet Corps of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.
Jason says those looking to enter the business sometimes acquire land by working with partners or taking over existing farms. He says sometimes farmers in a position to retire don’t necessarily want to sell their land to someone who has no interest in the industry.
“It is common enough that it has us looking to figure out what would be a good solution,” Jason says. “A farmer has acreage, irrigation—a really good spot—so we want to find the right veteran at the right time to take that on.”
Jason says the goal is to create a “landing pad” for veterans who want to get into agriculture but may not have all the resources available to do so.
Bill Ashton is the Military Veterans Agriculture Liaison for USDA. He says agriculture is an industry that is well matched to veteran values.
“Veterans have integrity, dependability, leadership, decision-making, tenacity teamwork and discipline,” Bill says.
As part of a partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor, USDA offers two national-level apprenticeship programs that allow veterans to earn money while learning a new career.
The Agricultures Commodity Graders program is a 12-month training agenda sponsored by the USDA. Another program for wildland firefighters also provides on-the-job-training through the Forest Service.
The USDA’s Farm Service Agency also provides direct loans to veterans. Bill says FSA lent more than $82 million in direct loans to veterans in 2018.
USDA also partners with the Veterans Administration to support its Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment program. Under the VRE program, veterans with service-connected disabilities who are struggling to find jobs can get help finding employment or education opportunities that are likely to lead to employment.
FVC seminars and trainings helped Lourence build a support network while spreading the word about agriculture programs for veterans.
“We find each other and help each other and keep going,” he says. “Just because you are out of the service doesn’t mean your service stops.”