Editor’s note: The first part of this story was published in the July 11 issue of Agri-View.
Steve Acheson grew up on a dairy farm south of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. And then the terror of Sept. 11 happened – a day that would change his life along with so many others.
“I was caught up in patriotic fervor,” he said. “I woke up in an illegal war which I immediately regretted; I deployed to Iraq. I got out of the military after five years.”
He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and needed two back surgeries. Though he returned to school for an engineering degree, by his last semester at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville he said he knew he was struggling down the wrong path.
“I realized I needed to get back out on the farm,” he said. “I needed it for my mental health.”
Peacefully Organic is his success story – a success story he wants to share with other veterans as a member of the advisory board for a new Veterans Administration veterans-farmers project.
“Veterans like myself have trouble reintegrating back into our culture after we’ve gone through a deployment experience,” he said. “I was never healing more than when I was on the farm. It’s hard to put your finger on – something about being connected to the land, being productive, being able at end of the day to look back at what you’ve done. We learn (in the military) there’s something bigger that we should be doing. Farming is a way to do something bigger. It’s just amazing.”
Acheson’s challenges have led him to take the additional step to help fellow veterans.
“This VA program – whatever we can do to connect veterans to the land we will,” he said. “We should really be helping veterans into sustainable agriculture. In terms of helping veterans learn a vocation, get their hands in soil – scientific evidence shows that putting hands in soil helps.”
VA invites veterans, farmers to new partnership
The new VA project is working on a broad network of farms and types to enable interested veterans to choose anything from small community-supported agriculture to large dairy, crops or livestock to organic or managed-grazing farms.
VA organizer Denise Chapin said the hope is to have the first couple of veterans in place this summer. Already she said the diversity of interest is surprising.
“It’s not just traditional dairy farming or beef grazing,” said Chapin, the program manager for therapeutic and supportive employment services at the VA. “It’s a lot of different stuff that I hadn’t really thought about. So how can we set up work experiences for these folks when they have unique interests?
They’re challenging us. I’m seeing a lot of creativity and a lot of interest and passion. They’re coming up with some interesting farming techniques.
“Our first farm that’s set up ready to go is Troy Gardens on the north side of Madison. It’s (community supported agriculture). They have a learning community, Community Groundworks. … We’re looking for veterans and farmers. Maybe a farmer could offer a training site. We’re looking for farms.”
The project is hoping to match veterans with farmer-mentors.
“It could be working on a farm, could be a farm manager, could be owning his or her own farm,” she said. “The veterans who have come to us are a real mix. Some already own a farm and want to advance their skills. We want to be flexible and meet the veteran where they are. It’s not just one lifestyle. We’re trying to offer as many opportunities as possible.
“We hope to have a mix of ages, as more veterans hear about it. Maybe they come back and work with us on ‘how can I stay farming as long as I can?’ Maybe I have physical issues, or not taking care of my own health. I hope it will be older veterans too who want to continue, or who are getting into it later in life. We have partnered with AgrAbility so when we have a veteran who needs a site evaluation or assistive technology, we know who to bring in.”
All farming needs knowledge The VA project is offering free agricultural education not only at Madison Area Technical College but also at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“(Veterans) don’t need to use the GI bill,” Chapin said. “We pay the tuition. This is our pilot period this year; our hope is to keep it going. We started with UW and MATC because they’re local and we know the providers. They’ve been great to work with.”
UW-Madison will be involved with both education and on-farm placement for the project.
“We know some of the farmers in the area where (the veterans) might get some mentoring,” said Steve Ventura, UW professor of environmental studies and soil science as well as chair of the agroecology program and director of the Land Tenure Center. “The Farm and Industry Short Course is in-classroom during the non-growing season. We have lots of different sources – business, economic and specialization in a number of different areas.
“We’ve heard from lots of veterans that they’re interested in career paths that are low-pressure that allow them some reentry into the working world, but not a hardcore ‘9 to 5’ kind of job. Agriculture gives them that kind of setting.
“There are lots and lots of jobs in agriculture right now. Not every job is as an independent farmer with their own farm – but lots of jobs that will give (veterans) the opportunity. It doesn’t need to be a full-time high-pressure job. If an individual is suffering from trauma that’s what they’re hoping for.”
UW will help after a veteran is enrolled in the VA program.
“I would help them figure out the education plan,” he said. “We’ve had interest in (community supported agriculture), cash grain, equine; we’ll provide different kinds of opportunities.”
Farm and Industry Short Course classes are held from October through March, designed to support those who need education during the non-growing season.
Free classes are also available for participating veterans at MATC’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.
“It’s been an amazing year,” said Randy Zogbaum, agriculture instructor and faculty director at the institute. “It’s been fun to see the progress we’ve made. We’re ready to bring people into the program. The few places I’ve been able to touch actual veterans with this I think it’s going to be great. It will be therapeutic as well as a good career choice.
“The full suite of services that are available are pretty unique – the VA services in particular. The education resources are a pretty amazing opportunity. (Veterans) can try a whole bunch of things on before investing in one. Here’s an opportunity to explore different types of farming, different types of education systems, and then focus on a specific plan.
“These aren’t 18-19-year-olds. These are older folks with families. This is a great way to bring the average age of 62 (in farming) down.”
Chapin said she believes the program will help the agricultural economy.
“It will encourage a younger generation to get into farming, and tap into our veterans who have many skills for farming,” she said.
But the focus is on helping the veteran.
“We have the staffing to do the whole-health-model care,” she said. “Veterans are directing their own health care through health coaches. It’s already self-sustaining.
“Getting into ag really taught me patience. You have to take things step by step. You can’t just throw some seeds on the ground and expect them to grow. (Veterans) learn about patience; it’s very therapeutic.”
Farms, farmers, mentors needed to help
The therapy won’t happen without farms to make the magic happen. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection signed on to help. The staff in the department has more than 100 years of experience in agriculture.
“We’ll keep our eyes and ears open for potential farm sites – individuals who would be good mentors and teachers,” said Kevin Plante, senior ag-program specialist at the Wisconsin Farm Center in the department. “First thing we’re looking at is interests that program applicants have been looking for. Maybe they want an operation that has grass-fed beef or livestock grazing or dairy. Maybe they’re interested in organic dairy. From there we connect with other people – ‘do you know of someone who has these types of operations?’
“This is very much a nurturing situation, not an employee. We’re looking for someone who’s willing to work in that way, who has an emotional ability to work that way. They need that kind of personality – a person who would be great to work with, who would like taking on new people to mentor them.”
Agriculture has been needing workers for some time, he said. The project will hopefully help with finding good employees as well as farm owners.
“It will be interesting to see if we can meet some of the challenges of the interest levels, where they are at the moment in skills, what kind of background do they have, how much more experience and training do they need,” he said.
“It’s a positive thing when it comes to having more labor force in the farm industry. It will be a matter of seeing how it fits in and what they bring to the table.”
Future not all rose-colored picture
The partners all have optimistic hopes for the project, but they’re also realistic. They know the industry is challenging.
“Moving from being an employee to owning their own farm, at that point we will give them that understanding,” Plante said. “We’ll talk about where the industry is at right now, where are the challenges. We do have those kinds of things, people who have rose-colored glasses. So you say okay let’s look at the numbers. There might need to be some steering – ‘this might not be the best way to go at this time.’
“Just the general aspects of the farm operation – jumping from the mechanical side of things to accounting to marketing. Some individuals think it would be great to become a farmer someday and don’t realize the challenges farmers go through on a daily basis. There’s the isolationism that occurs. You’re your own boss and don’t have daily interactions with people.”
Ventura said one challenge is that big bureaucracy is involved.
“We need to find ways to work together,” he said. “But the people involved are very enthusiastic and passionate.”
Another challenge is in putting out the word about the project – both to datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Growing_WI/VeteransInFarming.aspx%20" target="_blank">veterans and to farmer-mentors.
“But I’m encouraged at this point,” he said.
Zogbaum agrees that veterans and farmers need to learn about the program for it to work.
“(But) I’m excited of where it will end up going,” he said. “There’s a lot of momentum now. We’re accomplishing things now. There’s energy building.”
Contact Chapin at 608-256-1901, ext. 16431, or Denise.Chapin@va.gov – or contact Amy Ferkey at 608-256-1901, ext. 16433 — for more information regarding the VA program.
Visit madisoncollege.edu/institute-sustainable-agriculture or email RLZogbaum@madisoncollege.edu for more information on the Madison Area Technical College education available.
Visit www.facebook.com/POPsCSA for more information regarding Peacefully Organic.
Visit www.agrability.org for more information regarding AgrAbility.