Today about 6.1 million of America’s veterans live in rural communities. About 38 percent of military recruits call rural America home, but these communities face real economic challenges. So over the past two years – at President Obama’s direction – USDA and the rest of the federal government have taken historic action to support rural economies.
At the same time, USDA has worked to increase our rate of hiring veterans and disabled veterans each year. At the end of Fiscal Year 2011, nearly a quarter of USDA’s permanent hires were veterans.
Veterans are leaders in their communities and we want to help them pursue their goals. So today, Secretary Vilsack signed a Memorandum of Understanding between USDA and The American Legion at The American Legion’s Washington Conference. The Legion is the Nation’s largest veterans service organization and has long been committed to helping transitioning military and America’s veterans find jobs.
We will work with the Legion to increase outreach, recruitment, hiring, and retention of veterans and to ensure that veterans across America – and especially in rural America – are well informed about USDA programs like our through Farm Service Agency loans that can be used to purchase land, livestock, equipment, feed, seed and supplies. The agency provides direct and guaranteed loans to beginning farmers and ranchers. USDA also provides homeownership opportunities to low-and moderate-income rural Americans and business loans, grant and loan guarantees for rural communities under our Rural Development mission area.
At USDA, we recognized that there was a knowledge gap between service members who were looking to start a business, farm or ranch and our programs, grants, loans or small business contracts that are available. As a result of this MOU, we will provide information to all 14,000 American Legion posts and at all Transition Assistance Program offices, so that our men and women returning from service will learn about our programs when transitioning back into their communities.
Legion posts are often the hub of a rural community. One-third of its membership and over 5,300 posts are located in counties with populations under 40,000. We have about 450 USDA Rural Development offices and more than 2,100 Farm Service Agency offices in counties throughout the country. USDA operates through a field structure, much like the Legion. For us, this MOU was a natural fit.
Through creative partnerships like the one we announced today, USDA program managers will have an opportunity to leverage the Legion’s efforts and visibility in rural communities to market our programs to transitioning service members and veterans. We will encourage veterans to take a look at the opportunities and support we offer and encourage them to get into the field of agriculture through programs like www.START2FARM.gov . The American farmer is aging, 30% of farmers are 65 years or older. New farmers are essential to our nation’s national, food and economic security.