By Jessica Evans, Fort Sill TribuneApril 6, 2017
FORT SILL, Okla. (April 6, 2017) -- Established in 2006 as a way to help veterans interested in farming, the Farmer Veteran Coalition aims to help transitioning Soldiers trade their patrol caps for straw hats.
FVC is able to provide training to veterans in a number of ways, from on-the-farm training in their Growing Careers Internship Program to scholarships for veterans who are interested in attending local training programs.
The Growing Careers Internship Program connects veterans with established farms in Pescadero and San Jose, Calif., and exposes them to learn everything from the basics of planting seeds to harvesting techniques. Scholarships issued by the FVC are awarded through the Fellowship Fund and are used to train veterans all over the country.
"Because we have a large network of farmer veterans across the country, we are also able to reach out to (them) and see if they are open to taking on a fellow veteran for on-the-job training or mentorship," said Evan Eagan, FVC communication manager.
The founder of the FVC, Michael O'Gorman, has made it the mission of the coalition to help veterans learn new skills to make the transition back to civilian life less difficult.
One of the more challenging aspects for transitioning veterans in determining a new career path is education and funding.
"Farming provides a unique opportunity for Soldiers to find peace and quiet, and feed their community and family, while restoring the farming heartland of this country," O'Gorman said at a recent FVC meeting.
After coming from an environment where paychecks come at the beginning and middle of every month, where insurance premiums are paid from that same paycheck along with retirement plan payments, to one where finances are not guaranteed can be challenging for many. It's a scary prospect to consider what one should do after 20 years in the military. Often, there are myriad challenges awaiting veterans as they re-enter civilian society.
"We believe that veterans possess the unique skills and character needed to strengthen rural communities and create sustainable food systems, and that agriculture offers purpose, opportunity, and physical and psychological benefits," said Eagan.
One of the most common issues facing veteran farms is securing financing to purchase their own farm land. Eagan said that the FVC receives calls daily from veterans who may or may not have experience farming and who are looking for financial resources.
The FVC tries to educate veterans about all options available to them, that might or might not involve agriculture.
"Depending on a veteran's prior experience in agriculture, we might suggest trying to lease land to a veteran with experience, while we might suggest an internship program to a veteran with little to no experience," said Eagan.
Maj. Joel Heinzeroth's transition from career Soldier to farmer is one example of how the FVC helps veterans.
Micheal O'Gorman, FVC executive director said that Heinzeroth "exemplifies the spirit of American agriculture, having first served his country in the military and now working to feed his country."
As he prepares to exit the Army in August, Heinzeroth said that cattle ranching has been instrumental in helping to make the transition from Soldier to civilian more manageable.
The FVC has played a crucial role in helping him achieve a dream that was born during deployment to Iraq in 2004.
"It's nice having a little piece of your own," said Heinzeroth, overlooking the 440 acres he owns in Mountain Park, Okla.
On his acreage, Heinzeroth has 50 female cattle, 30 breeding heifers and three to four bulls, depending on the time of year. He is a cow-calf producer, a method of raising beef cattle in which a permanent herd of cows is kept to produce calves for later sale.
Heinzeroth said that he prefers raising calves for sale because he's seen enough destruction during his deployments.
As he moves closer to leaving the Army, he's ramping up plans for his cattle. With guidance from the FVC, the major used a popular crowd-funding site to help pay for an overhead feed bin that will help ensure his cattle get the nutrition they need to be marketable.
"The math just added up, so it helps a lot to have this," said Heinzeroth.
He can spend anywhere from four to six hours a day working on his land, tending his cattle and managing that land to its greatest potential. Once that's all done, he heads to Fort Sill to work what he calls a swing shift in the Operations Center.
"I've been running on about three or four hours of sleep for a while now, but it's worth it," he said.
The piece of mind that comes from owning land helps keep him on the right track.
"There have been plenty of times when I've had a bad day at work, I'll come out here, spend some time with the cattle, sit by the creek, think a bit, and that helps a lot," said Heinzeroth.
The major grew up on a 2,000-acre ranch in north-central Iowa, and credits the strong work ethic he developed as a youth for much of his successes in the Army. He's hoping to instill the same values in his children.
As he prepares to retire, Heinzeroth continues to keep his focus on his mission with the Army, while preparing for his exit in August.