When soldiers return from overseas or a tour of duty, whether combat or non-combat, it can be difficult finding the relationships, resources, or small grants needed to continue to a farm or ranch.

Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) was established in 2008, and has been giving small grants to veterans who are interested in farming, ranching, or another type of ag career for several years.

In addition, FVC provides many resources, including a stakeholder conference held each year in November that has up-to-date information from the USDA and many partner organizations.

“Veterans look for a sense of purpose, to find something meaningful when they exit the military. An ag career has meaning beyond just making a living,” said Natalie Monroe, FVC communications director.

The Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund is a small grant program (usually from $1,000-$5,000) that purchases a piece of equipment the veteran has identified as making a “crucial difference in their operation,” Monroe said.

Veterans have identified livestock, fencing, tractor implements, barns and greenhouses, as the items that can help keep them involved in production agriculture.

“For many, it single-handedly makes the difference in the launch of their operation,” she said.

FVC is the largest grant program in the country that provides direct assistance to veterans in agriculture. Each year, the national nonprofit organization accepts applications for grants each year, usually in February.

“The Fellowship Fund has played a vital role in the success of hundreds of farmer veterans as they establish their farming operations,” said Rachel Petitt, manager of the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund.

An example of a veteran who was helped by an FVC grant was Lance Barnes of Priest River, Idaho.

Barnes is an U.S. Army vet, who served more than 26 years with deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve.

Barnes and his wife, Lorinda, applied the grant to their farm/ranch in Idaho.

Before their farm/ranch, the couple had never milked, although Barnes grew up on a ranch.

They raise registered miniature and mid-sized Jersey milk cows and Salmon Faverolles chicken, some sheep and other cattle.

They have a sustainable ranch and have been able to “learn on the job.”

“We’ve learned what works and what we enjoyed, all while being able to make mistakes during the process and still having the security of my paycheck,” Barnes said. “We taught ourselves to butcher our livestock. We learned to make soap using the fat we rendered from our cattle and sheep, and adding milk from our dairy cows.”

Sponsors and partners of FVC activities and grants include: AFBR, Farm Credit Services, National Farmers Union, AgrAbility, Tractor Supply Company, Newman’s Own Foundation, Altria, USDA, Kubota, and Prudential, among others.

Even after grants are given out, some sponsors step up. One year, 20 farmer veterans who were previously denied fellowship awards were surprised with $1,000 gift cards shortly before Christmas from Tractor Supply Company.

In addition to their financial support of the Fellowship Fund, Kubota Tractor Corporation also awards four L-Series compact tractors to farmer veterans through their “Geared to Give” program. Only farmer veterans awarded a fellowship are eligible to be selected to receive a tractor.

FVC has awarded more than $1 million to veteran farmers/ranchers through its programs. The coalition recently helped a North Dakota veteran who wants to farm with a grant. FVC plans to make the announcement soon.

In addition to the small grants, FVC also owns the branding label “Homegrown by Heroes.” The label can be used to distinguish veterans’ products in the marketplace.

Networking is also a major part of FVC, a large part of which takes place each November at their stakeholder conference.

“Our sixth annual national conference this year will be on Nov. 18-19, and will be a virtual event,” Monroe said. “A virtual platform means every single one of our farmer/rancher veterans can attend without having to travel away from their farms. They can even tune in from the seat of their truck waiting in line at the elevator or their tractor.”

The FVC Stakeholders Conference is the leading gathering for the military-to-ag movement sweeping the country.

The Fellowship Fund enters its 11th funding cycle in 2021, and FVC will reveal new endeavors and partners on the horizon at this year’s virtual conference.

Even with a virtual event, FVC has plans for as much attendee interaction as possible, so the experience is beyond simply watching a screen. For example, there will be virtual exhibit booths, which remain open throughout the day.

“Both veterans and farmers, often geographically isolated, face enormous emotional and psychological stress. COVID-19 has magnified this,” Monroe said. “This year’s conference features two days of resources crucial to members during this time, through education, workshops, distinguished speakers, guest panels, networking, and development of FVC’s 25 state chapters.”

FVC has recognized from its beginnings the geographic and psychological isolation that is common to both farmers and veterans.

At the conference, vets share their stories, including about their farms and ranches.

“This national gathering, along with regional gatherings, offer education and resources, but also offer veterans what many of them miss the most from exiting the military – camaraderie and shared experiences,” Monroe said.

During the conference there will be also be focused presentations by PsychArmor – a mental health training and resource organization whose mission is to bridge the civilian-military gap through education.

Another presentation will be by Ag View Solutions, which shares their important work on peer learning and on-farm networking.

The conference opens with introductions of the farmer veterans and partner organizations on Nov. 18 at 8 a.m., PST, entitled, “Plowing Forward: The Road Ahead.”

At 9 a.m., there is a talk on “Tough Times, Tougher Farmers: Helping You Rise to the Challenge.”

“Many of us recognize first-hand that COVID-19 has caused unprecedented upheaval in the agriculture sector, and the USDA has been a critical partner in helping farmers rise to the challenge,” Monroe said.

USDA will highlight projects, such as their rural broadband initiative, that enable farmers to adapt to the economic and societal realities of the pandemic.

To wrap-up the session, USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture will announce the anticipated awarding of this year's AgVets grantees.

The conference introduces veteran farmers/ranchers resources available to them from higher education, the government and partner organizations.

“It’s an honor for us every day to work with these men and women who have served our country once by defending it, and now their communities a second time by feeding them,” Monroe concluded.

For more information about the conference, see https://conference.farmvetco.org/schedule/.