Programs work to bring veterans into agriculture


Issue Date: November 7, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman

You've heard of turning swords into plowshares. How about turning soldiers into farmers?

Private groups and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have launched programs intended to recruit former service members into the agricultural ranks.

One private group, the Farmer Veteran Coalition, is based in Davis. It was founded in 2008 by Michael O'Gorman, who left a 40-year career in production agriculture to start helping veterans, after reading media reports indicating a disproportionate number of troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan had roots in rural America.

Evan Eagan, the coalition's communications manager, said the organization works with veterans with no experience in agriculture, vets who are leaving the service to return to a family farm or those who are starting their own operation.

Cal Zamora, a Marine turned flower grower, gained help from the coalition as he launched his farm, Zamora Flora.

Zamora served in the Marines from 2003 to 2008 and was deployed to Iraq in 2007.

"A big thing I noticed in Iraq is, I'd see the degradation of the land," he said. "I was on the Euphrates River, and the desert came right up to 50 yards from the river. So they had plenty of water, but they couldn't grow anything."

The soil, he said, was salinated to the point of being toxic. Zamora said the experience taught him "how important it is to take care of the land, have stewardship of it, and ensure that that sort of thing doesn't happen to your best farmland."

That eventually led him to the California Farm Academy, run by the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters, where he and his wife Aubrianne enrolled in 2016. When applying to the academy, Zamora learned of the Farmer Veteran Coalition.

"They got me a scholarship in order to go to the California Farm Academy, so that my wife and I were both able to go through it," Zamora said.

At first, the Zamoras thought about raising chickens, but decided they lacked the money for the startup costs.

Zamora's day job at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon brought him into contact with florists. After a marketing instructor told him he had a "built-in client list right there," he decided to try flower growing.

Zamora Flora just wrapped up its second growing season, on property leased from the Center for Land-Based Learning. Zamora said he grew 117 varieties this year, including azaleas and sunflowers.

"One thing I like about flower farming is that we experimented a lot," he said. "We grew small amounts of a lot of different things—see how it worked, see how our customers liked it."

The Zamoras sold most of their output this year at farmers markets in Petaluma and Novato. Next year, he said, he plans to add more vegetables to his lineup.

Zamora Flora also is one of 63 veteran-operated farms in California—and some 1,400 nationwide—taking part in the Homegrown by Heroes program, a marketing label for food and other products grown or raised by veterans.

"I think America likes to support veterans, and one really good way to do that is to purchase the fruit of their labor," Eagan said. "The Homegrown by Heroes program allows them to communicate that."

To help more people like Zamora get started, the Center for Land-Based Learning operates an apprentice program that recently earned the approval of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to accept Montgomery GI Bill benefits.

"The veterans can use their GI Bill to participate in this program," said Christine McMorrow, the center's director of development and communications. "It can't pay for their tuition and their training, but it can pay for the other stuff that they need to be supported," such as housing and food.

"Once apprentices go through the program and complete their 3,000 hours of on-farm training and their 250 hours of curriculum training, they then graduate to the level of journeyman beginning farm and ranch manager," McMorrow said.

Matt Mccue, the Farmer Veteran Coalition director of training and employment, said the new generation of veterans entering agriculture is not just "taking up the old jobs that Grandpa did exactly as they did it."

"People getting out of the military have a tremendous amount of skills that they developed from the military that they can put toward agriculture," Mccue said. "Drone operators, for one—there's a huge demand for drone operators in agriculture."

Mccue said he would like to see more partnerships such as that between the coalition and the Center for Land-Based Learning, with dairy being near the top of his list.

"I'd like to get veterans into precision agriculture, plant breeding, and really take it to the next level," he said.

Zamora said he thinks farming also has social advantages for former service members.

"I see a lot of vets that get stuck in a bubble of only wanting to hang out with other vets, only wanting to talk to other vets, and isolating themselves, which in a lot of cases doesn't work out well for folks," he said.

Getting into farming and finding a community of fellow farmers was a major benefit for him, he added.

"It's kind of a healing process to be outdoors, to be nurturing something living, to see it through, going from seed all the way to the final product," Zamora said. "It's very different from what I did in the Marines."

For more information about the Farmer Veteran Coalition, see www.farmvetco.org/. Information about USDA veterans initiatives may be found at www.usda.gov/our-agency/initiatives/veterans.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.