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War veterans find sustenance–and solace–in farming

After Congress failed to pass a farm bill ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, a Department of Agriculture program that helps veterans transition into farming faces an uncertain future. For soldiers returning from war, farming can offer a new occupation, reintegration into civilian life and even therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We end tonight with two stories about life in rural America.

    Congress failed to pass a farm bill ahead of the midterm elections. One potential casualty? A Department of Agriculture program helping war veterans transition to farming.

    Mike Cerre reports.

  • Alejandro Jauregui:

    My grandpa was a farmer in Mexico. My dad worked for a farmer as a tractor operator. And when I was 12 years old, I started working with my mom in the fields.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Former Army Airborne Sergeant Alejandro Jauregui's farming ambitions were sidetracked by this IED explosion in Afghanistan on his fourth combat tour of duty.

  • Alejandro Jauregui:

    As a result, I lost both my legs, two fingertips, took some shrapnel wounds to my right forearm, lost my hearing on my right side. And here I am now.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Unable to do traditional farming, he started a bee pollination business in his hometown of Woodland, California, with the help of nonprofit veterans groups.

    A small grant from the Farmer Veteran Coalition helped him with his beehives. The rest, he's done on his own, using his disability insurance, and no other government assistance.

  • Alejandro Jauregui:

    Whenever I started looking into all this stuff about farming, and I started looking into programs that can potentially help me out, I didn't find any.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Nor could Mike O'Gorman, a career farmer looking for a veterans group assisting new farmers. So he started one, the Farmer Veteran Coalition, after reading a study on war casualties since 9/11.

  • Michael O’Gorman:

    It showed for the first time the disproportionate number of those that were killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the all-volunteer post 9/11 military was disproportionately coming from our most rural communities.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Recent veterans going into farming are the real one percenters, the less than 1 percent of Americans who are serving in the military or the less than 1 percent of Americans who are still working in agriculture.

    That's the lowest rates for both in the country's history. And as such, their needs connect with several national interests.

    Bill Ashton, a retired Naval officer, is now the program director for the USDA's new military and veterans agriculture outreach. His mission? Fill the shrinking ranks of older American farmers who have been aging out of agriculture by recruiting younger veterans.

  • Bill Ashton:

    The recent survey that we have here at USDA has the average age of a farmer being 58 years old. And about a quarter of all veterans came from and are living in rural America.

  • Joshua Eilers:

    I had hardly even seen a cow before I invested in them. And it's kind of been a learning experience since day one.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Former Army Ranger Joshua Eilers started Ranger Cattle near Austin, Texas, with help from his local USDA representative, Ruben Hernandez.

  • Ruben Hernandez:

    We some talked about farm loan, where he's able to qualify for low financial loans.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Since traditional farm credit programs are designed more for existing and larger farm operations, the Farmer Veteran Coalition is helping the USDA developed smaller micro-loans with reduced experience requirements for veterans more likely to be starting less traditional ag businesses.

  • Cal Zamora:

    We started real small and we crowd-sourced our startup money. We put a GoFundMe page on the Internet, we went on Facebook and basically begged our friends and relatives for money. And people came through.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Marine veteran Cal Zamora and his wife, Aubrietta, started their flower business on land leased from a local incubator farm after receiving a work-study scholarship.

  • Aubrietta Zamora:

    Cal and I both were participants in the Center for Land-Based Learning's California Farm Academy. And that program gives us access to land at a highly subsidized rate.

  • Mike Cerre:

    It was 100 degrees today, but I guess you have seen worse?

  • Cal Zamora:

    I have. When we were in Iraq, we would go outside and watch the temperature come down to 115. And that was — that was a good day.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Several veterans groups have developed their own ag training programs, like this hydroponic farm school near Camp Pendleton, California called Archi's Acres.

    It was started by former Marine Colin Archipley and his wife, Karen, after his last deployment to Iraq to help other vets make the transition to farming smoother than their own.

  • Colin Archipley:

    This job is difficult. There's risk involved. There's long days.

  • Mike Cerre:

    A six week intensive course at the Archipleys run with Cal Poly Pomona University is the subject of the documentary "The Farm."

    It's part hydroponic farming boot camp and part "The Apprentice" meets "Shark Tank" for aspiring veteran farmers, who present their business plans at the end of the course.

  • Colin Archipley:

    We're problem-solvers, like war fighters off the battlefield. We evaluate the battle space and then imagine how to deal with those threats. It's kind of the same thing we're trying to tap into when it looks at agriculture. There's a ton of challenges.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Matt Smiley, an Army medic in Iraq turned farm manager, was drawn to agriculture by its therapeutic benefits for veterans, documented by a recent VA study of veterans suffering from the effects of PTSD.

  • Matt Smiley:

    Coming back here and being able to teach veterans at a farm and find something that's similar to what they have done, can maybe give them some peace.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Keeping to the military tradition of taking care of their own, veteran farmers are collectively branding their products under the Homegrown By Heroes label to promote their new careers in agriculture.

  • Alejandro Jauregui:

    After I got hurt, I have two choices. I can either sit and whine and cry about my situation, or I can accept the cards I have been dealt with and try to make a full house out of it.

  • Mike Cerre:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Mike Cerre reporting from Northern California.

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