This past Memorial Day, the nation united to recognize devoted servicemen and women who have lost their lives in battle. The holiday also brought attention to the condition of veterans who are still alive, and who are actively seeking to re-engage with society upon returning from service.
The United States Department of Labor (USDL) reports that the unemployment rate for veterans is at its lowest in nearly ten years, at 3.7%. This statistic is also below the national average unemployment rate of 4.8%. While the statistic for veterans is optimistic, the USDL survey still indicates that about 1.05 million veterans are without jobs. What is more, many of the occupations held by veterans may not be healing any negative psychological effects they may suffer in result of their service.
Fortunately, many veterans are finding an answer to both unemployment and the need for healing in agriculture. Veterans’ commonly possess characteristics of diligence, forethought, physical stamina, and many other attributes that cause them to be successful farmers. Tia Christopher, chief of staff at the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, stated that, “farming and the military are two of the hardest professions….it takes a special type of person to do either, let alone both. I think the quality that’s most important for both is determination, and our farmer veterans have it in droves.”
One programs for veterans, named Farmers Assisting Returning Military (FARM), was founded in 2012 by Army veterans Steve Smith and James Jeffers, when the pair realized the connection between farming and service: both demanded structure, regimen, and a willingness to serve the nation. Since its conception, two veterans, as well as anyone involved at FARM, have recognized the tremendous therapeutic benefits that result from the fellowship between workers and the hours of service in the fields.
Army veteran Josh Ledford of FARM shared that the work “…helps with PTSD. I know a lot of guys are struggling with depression…I’ve seen guys that have been on medicine, then given up their medicine because they’re out here. They’re working, the brotherhood, the camaraderie.”
Marvin Frink, a disabled Army veteran who received a grant to start his agricultural efforts through the Farmer Veteran Coalition, provided another testimony to the virtues of farm work when he stated:
“Farming is an equivalent to going on tour. There’s the time of day where things need to get completed, no matter what’s going on with the weather or in our lives. Farming is like working with my old platoon. It gives me a sense of duty, and I feel responsible for something….serving your country in the way of agriculture is the way to go.”
A national movement to promote agricultural ventures to veterans began around the time when many soldiers were being discharged from Iraq and Afghanistan. Around this time (circa 2010), the USDA reported that the unemployment rate of young veterans was over 20%, and that 45% of armed service members had their roots in rural America and possessed an interest in farming and ranching. The Iraq and Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund provided resources for organizations like the Farmer Veteran Coalition to get off the ground. Currently, the USDA promotes the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots, and Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training, as well as partners with several states and organizations to help veterans find employment on existing farms or education and funding to begin their own.
While programs encouraging veterans to find relief in farming have greatly increased in the past decade, at present, no federal programs exist. Hopefully, as awareness of the benefits of farming grows, a federal program will be created that can unite and amplify nationwide efforts to improve the lives of those who have so generously defended our freedom.
To learn more about the experiences of returning soldiers healing through farm life, check out the documentary, Farmer/Veteran that premiered Memorial Day on PBS.