The following is a special Memorial Day post about Beginning Farmer legislation and the possibility of encouraging military veterans to enter farming careers through new farm bill provisions.
On May 10th, 2012 Justin Doerr, a beginning farmer and Iraq war veteran testified before a US House Subcommittee on Agriculture and spent time meeting personally with members of Congress to promote beginning farmer programs in the farm bill.
Justin farms in Nebraska on rented land and works with another farmer nearby, while having also worked a day job for 6 years to support his family and save money to build his own farming operation. You can read his full testimony here [PDF].
I spoke with him recently about his experience as a beginning farmer, about his trip to Washington, and about military veterans getting into farming careers.
When he joined the Army, Justin was planning to make it his career. But while on duty in Iraq he found he missed his family and life on the farm. Meanwhile “times had gotten tough” on the farm, his father had rented out the farmland to other growers, and basically stepped out of the business. For Justin, there seems to have been both a feeling of loss and responsibility associated with this change. “Farming kind of gets in your blood” he told me, “and I fought that for a while because a farming business doesn’t offer a lot of security”. But after his first tour of duty and his time in Iraq, he decided to return home to try to restart the family farm. Lacking the funds to start a farm business, he went to college and worked as a CAD designer in a hospital in order to save up money to start his farming operation.
You can read more about Justin's story, and his efforts to promote beginning farmer programs for veterans and others by clicking the "read more" tab.
Six years later, he is still slowly building his farming operation – renting land from his neighbors and his family, buying equipment and livestock, and slowly building and diversifying his farm operation. I get a lot of e-mails and comments from folks who are eager to “jump right in”, but despite his farming background and knowledge (or perhaps because of it), Justin has been careful to build his operation slowly. At the same time, his testimony speaks to the obstacles faced by aspiring farmers, even those with experience, who want to farm, but lack the capital and land resources to make it a career. Justin has been patient and deliberate in his farm entry strategy. He understands the risks associated with investing large amounts of capitol or taking on huge debts to invest in a single crop or production strategy.
Like so many of the farmers and aspiring farmers I’ve talked to over the years, the independence, the sense of community, and the connection to family are among the most important aspects of his choice to farm. “I love that every day is a new day, that you can always try different things, and the lack of monotony that comes with the daily grind of a normal 9-5 job” he told me. “The independence of farming enables me to be more connected to my family, and that’s one of the biggest perks. My daughter loves the sheep, loves taking care of them and that’s just such a joy to see. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been right now”, he says. “I love working with my neighbors, and we work together. It’s not like most businesses, because we don’t feel like we’re in competition with each other”.
In his testimony, Justin identified the Down Payment Loan Program, Individual Development Accounts, FSA Microloans, Whole Farm Crop Insurance, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program as particularly important to new farmer development.
We also talked specifically about the potential for including provisions that help military veterans become farmers within farm bill legislation. Justin made it clear that this could help many veterans find farm jobs, which he believes their military experience might suit them for particularly well. With many veterans out of work, and struggling with the physical and psychological toll that combat has taken on many of them, new legislation has provided set asides for the development of training programs for veterans within the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development program. The Senate Ag. Committee has included this provision in their farm bill markup. And we are hopeful that it will provide a starting point for many more programs and policies that promote opportunities for military veterans to become farmers.
Read more about the status of the farm bill and its inclusion of military veteran programs: