In honor of Veterans Day, Deputy Under Secretary Lanon Baccam provided Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with an overview of USDA’s support for veterans. Baccam, a proud army veteran, also serves as the Department’s Military Veterans Agriculture Liaison.
Tomorrow is Veterans Day, an official day reserved each year to commemorate the contributions to our nation’s safety and security that have made by our military veterans and their families. This includes over 11,000 veterans who now work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). And while USDA’s connection to the military starts with our veteran employees, it extends far beyond, by encompassing the entire mission of our department.
With 16 percent of the population living in rural America, yet comprising 40 percent of the military, rural America contributes an outsized proportion of its sons and daughters to the armed forces. That’s why in my capacity as USDA’s Military Veterans Agriculture Liaison, I’m proud to share some information about how USDA has been able to honor the service of these brave men and women by helping them to branch out into agriculture when they return to their communities. With approximately 1,300 veterans and their family members returning to civilian life each day, transitioning from the military to agriculture is a natural fit for many.
At USDA, our programs can help veterans who are interested in starting a farm or ranch. Eric Grandon, a veteran from West Virginia, credits farming with saving his life. He spent nearly 20 years in the Army, and served as a combat veteran in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom II, and participated in four peace-time missions to the Middle East. Eric suffered from post-traumatic stress (PTS) and was deemed permanently disabled, but through farming, he found a way to work through his PTS. With the help of several USDA programs — including a generous grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to build a high tunnel — Eric now grows and harvests 300 heads of romaine lettuce for four separate county school systems.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the unemployment rate for the rural post-military population fell to 5 percent in 2015 – - its lowest level since its 2010 peak of 10.3 percent. Moreover, the unemployment rate for young rural veterans (ages 18 to 34) has also declined — from a high of 15.7 percent in 2009 to 7.9 percent in 2015. While that reduction in unemployment is partly due to the national economic upturn, it also is due to the public and private efforts which help veterans transition into the workplace much more quickly and into better paying jobs that fit with their skills.
USDA has established more partnerships to help veterans find careers in agriculture. One great example is the Memorandum of Understanding between USDA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes program. HOH has several “Fast Track” web portals to connect veterans with jobs in industries such as trucking and transportation, entertainment and media, manufacturing, insurance, oil and gas, and financial services, but now, USDA has been working with HOH and CHS to develop a “Fast Track” portal for jobs in the agriculture industry. The Ag Fast Track will bring together Ag industry employers with our military veterans seeking employment.
Hiring our Heroes also coordinates with the Department of Defense and military commanders around the country to host some of the premier employment and transition summits for service members. This year, USDA launched a new, agriculture-focused workshop at these summits, which allows us the opportunity to engage directly with service members to inform them about the many programs we have that can help them pursue farming and ranching. A few of the programs include:
- Low-interest loans from the Farm Service Agency (FSA), of which more than $505 million has been issued to over 7,400 veterans since 2009, providing them with the credit needed to start a farm or ranch;
- AgrAbility, a USDA-supported organization that helps veterans and people with disabilities enter – and remain – in farming and ranching. This can be extraordinarily helpful for those veterans who suffer from less visible disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress, because the evidence remains strong that working the land, and raising crops and livestock, can have notable therapeutic aspects for our returning heroes;
- Our National Institute for Food and Agriculture has provided a $275,000, four-year grant that will support Texas State University’s Boots to Roots program, helping women and Hispanic veterans in their pursuit of agricultural and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees. This grant will allow this segment of the veteran population to take full advantage of the 57,900 job opportunities that occur each year in degree-related agricultural fields, especially since there is an annual shortfall of 22,500 candidates to fill these positions;
- We’ve been working to train veterans on the basics of agricultural practices, with the Agricultural Research Service working with partners in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to offer workshops, online courses, internships and multiple-day “Armed to Farm” boot camps that can help veterans to explore whether farming and ranching is right for them, and learn how to move forward in agriculture.
- And finally, this year we launched an apprenticeship through the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), targeted at veterans, that will increase our ability to hire them here at USDA. The AMS commodity grader apprenticeship is a Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship program that provides technical training to help veterans join the USDA team that ensures the quality of our farm commodities in commerce. The apprenticeship is also recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which allows veterans to use their G.I. Bill benefits with this apprenticeship.
Mr. Secretary, our veterans have served this country admirably by protecting it; and with USDA’s support, they can continue those honorable contributions to their country by providing for it, through farming and ranching, jobs in the agriculture industry, or with continued public service at USDA. America’s veterans are helping to provide a strong, safe and affordable food and fiber supply for our country.
As a veteran, it has been my privilege to work with current and former members of our military to strengthen that link between them and USDA services. The foundation which we have created will continue to be of significant benefit to our returning servicemen and women well into the future.
Deputy Under Secretary &
Military Veterans Agriculture Liaison