WICHITA, Kan. — A pilot program is taking root in the nation's heartland, one that aims to help returning veterans become farmers and revitalize rural communities.
"We thought this might be a great opportunity, especially with these veterans coming back and finding out there are a lot of employment issues in cities and other large areas," said Nick Levendofsky, special projects coordinator of the Kansas Farmers Union.
The so-called Veteran Farmers Project — funded by the Agriculture Department's Risk Management Agency and the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska and supported by a coalition of farm groups based mostly in the Midwest — will start with a series of free workshops in Kansas and Nebraska next month. In the summer, farm tours are planned across the states, including some near the Missouri and Colorado state lines to draw on veterans from neighboring states.
The program provides individual consultations with agricultural professionals, mentoring by established farmers and assistance in finding financing from local banks and government lending programs. For disabled veterans, there is also help available to retrofit tractors.
Chris Ritthaler, national veteran outreach coordinator for the California-based Farmer Veteran Coalition and a partner in the project, said he is seeing a lot of interest in farming being generated not only by the job market but also by the wartime experiences of returning veterans.
"Post-traumatic stress is a major factor, where they are saying, 'I can't work in a normal environment,' 'I can't work for someone else,' or 'I can't work around the hustle and bustle of people in a metropolitan area,'" Ritthaler said. "Farming is seen as a very viable and realistic option for them."
Program leaders envision pairing returning veterans with established farmers willing to mentor them or hire them to help on the farm, Levendofsky said.
"It is going to be a great opportunity, and in some ways it is also going to be therapeutic for some of these veterans," he said.
Program leaders acknowledge that it is extremely difficult for most veterans to get into traditional, large-scale commodity agriculture. Ritthaler said most of the veterans are looking for farming operations on 10 acres or less where they can tap niche markets, such as heirloom vegetables.
"We are looking at very small, sustainable and subsistence farming — that is kind of what our focus is going to be on," Levendofsky said.
One veteran was interested in selling raspberries and was looking for a way to market his produce. Others were interested in raising small herds of cattle, which do not require a lot of overhead costs, he said.
Many of the veterans would treat farming operations as a secondary income, either because they have a spouse who is employed or because they receive a disability check that allows them to supplement their farm income, Ritthaler said.