After The Battle, The Harvest: Programs Help Vets Move Into Farming

Apr 24, 2016
Originally published on April 25, 2016 2:37 pm

Tor Peery grew up in a farming community in upstate New York, baling hay in the summers. He never thought he'd want to go back to that life.

Three deployments with the U.S. Marine Corps — including a tough tour in Helmand, Afghanistan — changed his mind.

"So many years I've been in the world of destruction," he says. "Being infantry and in the Marine Corps, I've destroyed so many things. I just want to create now."

Now Peery is learning the craft and business of farming at the Arcadia Center For Sustainable Food And Agriculture. He's a "reservist," which means he shows up one weekend a month, plus two weeks during the growing season. Arcadia also has one full-time, year-long fellowship. This spring, Arcadia volunteers, along with vets from the group The Mission Continues, built a 60-foot hoop-house in one day, barn-raising style.

Arcadia, like dozens of organizations across the country, is training veterans to be farmers. And farming seems to be a good fit for vets, says Pam Hess, who directs Arcadia, judging by how fast the new greenhouse went up.

"Thirty-five, 40 people who have never worked together before managed to put together a greenhouse — [something which] none had ever done before," she says.

And the thing is, the country could really use a few good farmers. At the moment, there are enough farmers to feed the nation. They're getting older, though: The average age for American farmers is 58, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

So as thousands of younger Americans leave the military — which has been downsizing lately — the USDA would like them to consider carrying the torch as older farmers start to retire. The department even has a military veterans liaison, Lanon Baccam.

"A disproportionate amount of military vets come from rural America and serve," notes Baccam, himself an Afghanistan vet. In fact — while only 17 percent of Americans live in rural areas, people from rural communities make up 40 percent of the military. "Many want to go back to those communities, and we want to help them when they get there," Baccam says.

The USDA has put a half-billion dollars into loans and other help for veteran farmers to buy land and equipment since 2009.

"We'd like to help them start their own operations, and get on these farms that may be ready to turn over," Baccam says. "And there are benefits to farming or ranching that we know exist that you can't see — the therapeutic benefits of working the land."

At Arcadia, Pam Hess says the best therapy is to stay connected with other veterans, and find a successful career post-military.

"So many [vets] are looking for really meaningful work, where effort in equals success out," she notes. But she agrees that a lot of vets can't get that in an office. "Especially the combat folks, they're outdoor cats now. They don't want to be in a tie, in a cubicle taking orders from someone," she says.

Indeed, being outdoors was the biggest things that Laron Murrell — this year's full-time fellow at Arcadia — missed after leaving the Army. After two tours to Iraq, he tried a desk job.

"It just wasn't fulfilling," he says. "When I leave [the farm] it's like - whew! I'm excited again. It's put the excitement back in my life."

After he completes his fellowship, Murrell is hoping to revive a 50-acre family farm back in North Carolina. He knows that's going to be a lot of hard work: rough conditions, back-breaking labor, bad weather, long hours. But he figures it can't really top his Iraq deployments.

"I made it through that," Murrell says. "What kinds of conditions can you really put me in?"

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are enough farmers in America to feed the nation right now. They're getting older, though. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the average age is 58. Thousands of younger American are leaving another field. The military is downsizing after the huge mobilization of the last decade. You see where we're headed with this. Across the country, dozens of programs are helping veterans become farmers. NPR's Quil Lawrence visited one in Virginia.

TOR PEERY: So many years I've been in the world of destruction, you know, because of being in the infantry and being in the in Marine Corps especially. You know, it's - I've destroyed so many things. And I just want to create now.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Tor Peery did three deployments, including a tough tour in Helmand, Afghanistan. Today, he's helping create a greenhouse in Northern Virginia along with dozens of volunteers. They're hammering the ends of huge, steel hoops in the ground to hold up a 60-foot plastic sheeting roof. Peery is in the process of medically retiring from the Marines.

PEERY: I love to serve my country and my people. And farming was kind of a multipronged thing that I can do to continue my service.

LAWRENCE: Multipronged because it's a different task every day, one of the things Peery liked about the military. He's part of a veteran farmer reserve program - one weekend a month - with a group called Arcadia.

PAMELA HESS: I'm Pamela Hess. I'm the executive director of the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture.

LAWRENCE: Hess says farming requires constant improvisation, problem-solving and initiative. It suits the veterans' skill set. Today, her reservists, along with vets from the group The Mission Continues, are putting up the greenhouse in a one-day barn raising kind of thing.

HESS: Thirty-five, 40 people who've never worked together before have managed to put together a greenhouse that none of them have ever built before. They're three or four hours ahead of schedule at this point.

LAWRENCE: They have the same idea at the Department of Agriculture, which actually has a military veterans liaison, Lanon Baccam. He says 17 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but they make up 40 percent of the military.

LANON BACCAM: There is a disproportionate amount of military veterans who come from rural America and serve. And many of them want to go back to those communities, and we want to help them when they get there.

LAWRENCE: USDA has put half a billion dollars into loans and other help for veteran farmers to buy land and equipment since 2009. Vets are learning everything from basic horticulture to marketing and finance. Baccam says USDA would like to see some vets carry the torch as older farmers start to retire.

BACCAM: We'd like to help them start their own operations and get onto these farms that may be ready to turn over, and the young veterans are key to this. And there are benefits to farming or ranching that we know exists - that you can't see - and these are the therapeutic benefits of just working the land.

LAWRENCE: Pam Hess at Arcadia plays down the therapeutic side of farming. She says the best therapy is to have business success and a meaningful job and connection with other vets. But it's true - a lot of these guys can't get that in an office.

HESS: So many of them are looking for really meaningful work where effort in equals success out. So many of them - especially the combat folks, they're outdoor cats now. They've spent 10 years outside, and they do not want to be wearing a tie and sitting in a cubicle and taking orders from someone.

LARON MURRELL: One of the main things has been being able to not be stuck inside all day long.

LAWRENCE: Laron Murrella (ph) is an Army vet, two tours to Iraq. He's on a year-long fellowship at Arcadia Farm. He tried a desk job after leaving the Army.

MURRELL: They just - it just wasn't fulfilling, you know, at all. It wasn't - you didn't get that sense of - when I leave here it's, like, oh. You know, when it's time to come here, I'm, like, you know - ready to get to work - you know, ready to get back home and start my own farm. I'm excited again. So it put the excitement back in my life.

LAWRENCE: Murrella is hoping to revive a 50-acre family farm back in North Carolina. He knows that's going to be a lot of hard work. But rough conditions, back-breaking labor, bad weather, long hours - he figures it really can't top his Iraq deployments.

MURRELL: I made it through that. I mean, what - what kind of condition can you really put me in?

LAWRENCE: Before the sun is even low in the sky, they slide the plastic roof over the greenhouse, ready for seedlings that will sprout into this year's harvest.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There you go. All right, way to go.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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