Michael O’Gorman

In just a little more than a decade, the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) has grown from the seed of an idea into a national organization.

In 2008, California farmer Michael O’Gorman launched FVC, which helps place military veterans into agriculture. Though he has no military background, he has always had a soft spot in his heart for those who served. He recently spoke with IFT about how it all came about.

IFT: The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were the trigger for the creation of this organization. How did it all come about?

O’GORMAN: My original idea was to help some veterans get jobs on some of our farms.

Then on 9/11 my oldest daughter, Anne, had just got her master’s degree from Columbia and had taken a job across from the Twin Towers when the planes hit. (She was unharmed.) ... My son joined the Coast Guard a week later. It got me connecting the dots for the need for more farmers.

IFT: Tell us about your background.

O’GORMAN: I’ve been a farmer my whole life. I’m originally from Humboldt County (in northern California). ... My background is in vegetable production. I managed three large organic vegetable operations.

IFT: You have extensive experience in management. Is that something that helped with the creation of the FVC?

O’GORMAN: Yes. My whole career I start things.

IFT: So you started in California. Was the growth slow and steady?

O’GORMAN: Indeed. It took a year for us to find nine veterans. It was September 2009 by the time we got to Farm Aid (held that year in St. Louis). I brought everybody involved in the group out there. I did everything from my pocket at first, to get the idea out there and get ideas about the project.

IFT: It is called a coalition, but it didn’t start out as a partnership of different groups, did it?

O’GORMAN: There are over 200 groups with a regional approach. ... We call it a coalition because it really is. I figured out early on that if I was going to build a single organization I would have limited ability to help people. Our mission says “mobilizing veterans to feed America.” But our real mission is to mobilize the agriculture industry to support our veterans. ...

The first thing I did was introduce our project to Farm Bureau, the Farmers Union and Farm Credit, the three biggest farm organizations in the country. They have really big networks. They happily came on board and helped us out. That really helped our reach.

One of the biggest things started happening in 2012. We were just enough on the radar where we started getting calls from Senate offices. It was time to write the farm bill. The head of the Agricultural Committee was Sen. (Debbie) Stabenow from Michigan. Her staff called me. Five or six other senators’ staffers called me. By the time it was done, I was literally making things up on the spot. Every one of them got written into law. It is a lobbyist fantasy that you can make something up and they run with it.

IFT: What are some of the specific policy accomplishments of the organization?

O’GORMAN: The first thing we did was to recognize veteran farmers. That didn’t pass in 2014, but there was recognition for veteran farmers. USDA added a military veteran agricultural liaison. We got veteran preference written in grant programs to help farmers with conservation programs such as EQIP (Environment Quality Incentives Program). We got veteran preference written into there and a few other programs like that. There are two major funding efforts for young and beginning farmers, including the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Office of Agriculture Outreach. Both of those now set aside a certain amount of their funds to help train veterans in agriculture.

IFT: What are some other entities in which FVC has made an impact?

O’GORMAN: The first year, we got USDA, SBA (Small Business Administration) and the Department of Labor all talking. SBA helps entrepreneurial veterans. It took us a while to rope in the VA (Veterans Administration), but over time we did it. They have funding now about the therapeutic benefits of working with plants. VA centers hook up with groups that do hands-on farm where veterans can come to decompress.

IFT: How is the organization’s efforts helping veterans personally?

O’GORMAN: Early on we got guys and gals who were just starting out. Now it’s multi-generational farmers and veterans. Ten percent have 250 acres or more and 20% have 100 acres or more. We’re becoming a real member-driven organization of men and women who strongly identify with farming and their ties to the military. There’s the Gear to Give Program. Kubota is tied into that. They do tractor giveaways, and they’ve branched out from small utility tractors to larger equipment. There are also corporate discounts. It’s pretty exciting.

IFT: What is the budget, and how is the coalition funded?

O’GORMAN: Our budget is around $2 million a year. Some comes from grants. Our biggest funders are agricultural companies. We have some foundation support and individual support. It’s a cross section.

IFT: You also provide marketing support indirectly, right? How has that worked out during a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled markets?

O’GORMAN: On Veterans Day 2013 we signed a licensing agreement that we manage in the other 49 states. It gives veterans an opportunity to differentiate their product in the market. We found out this spring with COVID that weekend in March when my phone wouldn’t stop ringing. They were losing farmers markets, school programs were shutting down. It really helped the veterans find new markets. They had that competitive edge.

IFT: What is the future for you and for the coalition?

O’GORMAN: On July 1, I passed on being director. I will possibly retire in 2022. I’m spending some time working on my new title — chief agricultural officer. I want to spend some time working with veterans in vegetable production rather than administration and fundraising.

I’m thrilled about the future.

IFT: What does the FVC mean to you personally?

O’GORMAN: I pinch myself. Not everyone gets to start something that outlives them. I think this project is going to be around a long time.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.