Helping North Coast vets find farm jobs, and the new Farmer-Veteran Coalition

This article is about the local crop (wine) but the newish startup Farmer-Veteran Coalition <farmvetco.org> is building a nationwide service for connecting Iraq/Afghan veterans with agriculture, especially community/organic-based.
By GUY KOVNER THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 at 5:22 p.m.
Iraq war veteran Shane Brannan worked a typically frenzied harvest last fall at Kosta Browne Winery, a pinot noir producer in Sebastopol.
The long hours and hard work of crushing grapes suited the 33-year-old former Army sergeant just fine. “I went from push-ups to punch downs,” Brannan said, describing his transition from military exercise to winemaking labor. Punching down is the process of physically pushing the cap — a mass of grape skins, stems and seeds — back down into the wine during fermentation. Brannan said the physical challenge “really tests your mettle” and winery teamwork reminded him of the camaraderie he forged among 4th Infantry Division soldiers in Iraq six years ago. From the internship at Kosta Browne, Brannan has moved onto a part-time job as assistant winemaker at Meander Cellars in St. Helena, weekend stints in the tasting room at Lynmar Estate Winery in Sebastopol and viticulture classes at Santa Rosa Junior College. “I have no off time,” said Brannan, who lives in Santa Rosa's Rincon Valley area. On Friday, he will stop by the Food and Farming Veteran Career Fair, an event aimed at linking ex-military men and women with jobs or training programs for the food and farming industries.

Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Neville is scheduled to speak at the start of the career fair, which runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, 1351 Maple Ave. Admission is free and lunch will be provided. The Coming Home Project will offer counseling to veterans. Joe Judge, a Bennett Valley grape grower, will be there as well, urging fellow vineyard owners to hire veterans. “We are indebted to them for their service,” said Judge, president of the Bennett Valley Grape Growers Association. “I look upon this as a method of repaying my personal debt.” He said he has hired three veterans over the last few years to help tend his 10-acre syrah and sauvignon blanc vineyard, including one he entrusted with springtime frost protection duty last year. Sponsoring the career fair is the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, a group formed in 2007 to guide combat-stressed veterans into farm-related civilian jobs. Sonoma County is a “ground zero” for the movement, said Michael O'Gorman, a 40-year farmer and adviser to the coalition. Matt McCue, an Iraq veteran who tilled the French Garden Farm in Sebastopol under the coalition's auspices in 2008, now runs Shooting Star, an organic farm in Fairfield with his partner, Lily Schneider. For young soldiers who thrived on the rigors and the risks of the service, working the soil is “a healthy transition,” Brannan said. “It's definitely a great career path.” Brannan, who grew up in Tempe, Ariz., joined the Army in 2000 and served for a year at a U.S. base in Baquba, Iraq, mostly as a forward observer. His team manned a tower at night, peering up to 20 kilometers away, through night-vision gear, for insurgents planting bombs or preparing to fire mortars. “It got scary at times” when “the rounds landed pretty close,” he said. Brannan left the Army in 2004 and was studying civil engineering in Arizona when he came to Sonoma County last summer to try the wine business instead. Wine Country scenery is unbeatable, and the business is promising, he said. Brannan's just a a bit embarrassed by his first choice in wine, drinking white zinfandel with a girlfriend in the Army. “Fortunately, I've graduated to having a better palate,” he said. Friday's career fair was organized in collaboration with the North Bay Veterans Resource Center of Santa Rosa, Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Santa Rosa Junior College and other organizations. For information, go to the coalition's Web site at farmvetco.org or call (530) 756-1395. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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