PA Veteran Farming Project
We recently interviewed Mimi Thomas-Brooker with the PA Veteran Farming Project. In celebration of Veterans Day, we discussed veterans in agriculture and resources to help them be successful.
Could you start by sharing some information about veterans in farming? How many veteran farmers are currently in Pennsylvania, and why is farming a good occupation for veterans?
There are over 800,000 veterans in Pennsylvania. As Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding says, “Two percent of Americans serve and two percent feed us.”
There are about 53,000 Pennsylvania farmers, and it is difficult to know how many are veteran farmers. The PA Veteran Farming Project works with about 300 a year. We know we don't reach all of them, and we believe there are many more veterans in our state who would like to farm.
Farming is a great occupation whether you've served a few years or 20 years, because veterans tend to like to be action-oriented, work with their hands and work in the outdoors. For some of them, it's therapeutic and it's a way to continue serving. They've served a country, and now they're serving their communities by feeding them and providing agribusiness and products, and hiring people in some cases. It's a great fit for veterans.
Our veterans are aging just as farmers are here in Pennsylvania. The average age at the national level for farmers is 55. About 25% are 65 years or older, and farm succession is a big deal. Trying to get more younger veterans into agriculture is a huge way to keep our food system secure and to provide them with a solid occupation where they feel that they are serving their community and feeding their family at the same time.
In our experience with the veterans that we work with, there are some qualities that made them successful in the military and are important for successful farms. Veterans tend to do their homework. Many do lots of research before they even come to me and ask questions. They are prepared; they know about rules and regulations. Even if they're unfamiliar with the food safety regulations, they know how to research and get those answers. They're highly attentive to safety, which is a huge risk management factor on the farms.
Veteran farmers that are successful are committed to the long term. They know that you can't build a farm in a year, and they plan for the future. Farming is a great opportunity for veterans, and we try to help them.
Tell our listeners about the PA Veteran Farming Project - what are the goals of the project and what types of activities/programs do you host?
We're Pennsylvania's grassroots agriculture network for military veterans and their spouses, whether they be small farmers with a farmstead or a large commercial farm looking for a business connection. Anyone who has served in the military or is married to one is welcome to join our network.
We're led by a group of advisors, six of whom are veterans themselves and one is a military spouse. They are from all over the state, and they help to drive the programming and help us keep on track of filling a need. We don’t just create a program to say we created it, but to find out what they need and how we can provide the resources.
Our mission is connection. We've had some great success, especially where we have small farmers who are scaling up. Maybe they're starting a farmstead, like one farmer here in Allegheny Township in the western part of the state. This farmer does pork and some vegetables, but he wanted to grow that, so he connected with some other folks in our network. Now he's stocking veteran-produced maple syrup, selling that on his farm, so he's opened a new network market for that product. He's also selling custom blended tea from The Skirted Soldier in Blue Knob so she can reach parts of the state where she has not previously had a market.
We connect farmers to mentoring, whether it's through a formal class like our Bee Bootcamp or an on-the-job apprenticeship through our Troops to Tractors program, or a more informal mentoring, where a beginning or entering farmer will call us or email us or message us and say, "Hey, I think I want to get into goats. Do you know somebody who lives near me that I could go visit their farm?" We call that our Ag Allies Program, and it can be helpful.
We also connect our network to resources. I mentioned other agriculture organizations like Extension, the Pennsylvania Department of Ag, plus a variety of different organizations. We try to help them hone in on priorities and then connect them with resources. Education is a huge part of it. Last year we held our first veteran farming conference in Boalsburg. The conference was successful including making connections and providing speakers. Unfortunately, this year we will need to have a virtual conference due to COVID. However, we still think it's going to be a great and engaging conference.
We also host regional workshops throughout the year, typically on farms owned by veterans so the attendees can see projects on the ground and learn not just what you did, but how did you do it. Did you find funding sources? Did you use an ag service provider to help? How did you market it? We're big on practical education.
We provide help searching for grants and funding. In some cases, such as the recent state grant for the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, we helped a couple of our veterans put together their applications. We have a grant writer as a member of our network who can assist with applications.
The third aspect of our PA Veteran Farming Project is promotion. We do a lot of promotion of veteran agribusinesses. Our organization hosts veteran farm tours. In fact, we'll be hosting one on Friday in Adams County and York County. Two veterans obtained grants from the state to expand their community reach to lower income neighborhoods for fresh food. On the tour we are thrilled to host Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding and Major General Carrelli from the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veteran Affairs to visit with those veterans and see how they're serving their communities now.
On our website, troopstotractors.org, we have a veteran farm map with at least 60 veteran farms throughout the state listed by the county and what they produce. Why not buy local and buy veteran?
Throughout the month of November we are focusing on highlighting veterans, from hop growers, beer brewers, wine makers, distillers to even a veteran who does custom-blended teas. Our organization partners with the statesvisitpa.com to get recognition through their newsletter, and that's on our website as well. You can download a map and descriptions of all those.
Our goal is to help people who have served and who are now operating agribusinesses or owning farms, to be successful and sustainable, both in a conservational way and economically. Anything we can do to provide the tools to empower them to grow their farms is what we want to try to do.
Because we're an independent organization and not part of a larger institution, we are malleable. We can meet needs as they arise. We're nimble and our board of advisors is an engaged and clever group who always come up with great ideas for new programming.
What do you see as the greatest needs for veterans getting started in farming today?
We've asked veteran farmers, and what they've told us are two things which will surprise no one; access to land and finances.
Part of the financing problem is realistic business plans. We partner with many organizations in this area, Horizon being one of them. We work with USDA, Small Business Association and the new Agricultural Center of Excellence for the Small Business Development Centers. These organizations assist veterans (or anyone) with business planning.
If the veteran farmer has a concept, how can they bring concept to launch? That’s a big part of getting financing. Then once they get beyond that initial stage, marketing is a big need. How do they get their products to market? Related to regulatory compliance, how do they manage risk for both themselves and their consumers?
Are there any other thoughts you would like to share with our listeners today?
Please visit troopstotractors.org or find us on Facebook and Instagram at @PAVetsFarm to see some of our veterans who are farming and learn about our programs. I hope that you will refer veteran farmers to us to see if we can be of assistance. In some cases they could be veterans providing assistance as mentors, so we would like to get involved with anyone who farms in Pennsylvania and has served.
We are not for profit, fiscally sponsored and seek grants each year for beginning farmers. We also host many programs, including Bee Bootcamp for veterans who want to learn basic hive management. That was supported by Disabled American Veterans, and we're going to expand this year with the help of the State Veterans Trust Fund. That's an area we would like to see grow so if there's interest in that, please reach out to us.