New Purposes

Veterans Look for Way into Ag

Aaron White sees similarities between farming and the military: working outdoors and making decisions. (PF photo by Jim Patrico)

The story haunted Michael O'Gorman. "I got blowed up by an IED." The soldier had served in Iraq and was recuperating from his wounds, relearning to walk and talk in a treatment facility in Southern California. Despite his injuries, he mentioned to O'Gorman that his mind never wandered far from the small blueberry farm he grew up on in northern Florida.

"He told me he had visceral memories of the farm: the sound of the birds, the feel of the breeze on his face and how it felt to sit on a tractor," O'Gorman recalls. "He wanted to go back to the farm."

O'Gorman, the successful, large-scale organic farm manager came across a study that a sizable number of veterans come from rural areas and desire to return to their communities. Many want to make a go at farming but have no farm background or the skills, training and resources to succeed.

O'Gorman met with nine area farmers to talk about how they could create jobs on their own farms for returning veterans. Joining them were three mothers who lost sons in Afghanistan and Iraq to discuss creating an organization that would support veterans interested in agriculture, veterans such as the soldier from the Florida blueberry farm.


That meeting eventually led to the creation of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC). O'Gorman explains that veterans see an undeniable similarity between military and farmingâ??long hours, working with their hands and managing risk while being outdoors, protecting living things and seeing "missions" through to completion. In addition, farming is particularly appealing to those with post-traumatic stress disorder, as working the land provides a holistic approach to healing from war.

"Originally, I thought I could help a dozen interested veterans learn how to grow vegetables, but the first meeting led to other meetings and phone calls, and interest just grew," he says. "No one was helping veterans on this level, and about 370,000 farmers today are also veterans," he says. "Our initial research found more than 40,000 groups serving vets, but none of them were involved in agriculture."

Since its founding in 2008, FVC boasts 18,000 members in all 50 states and U.S. territories. It has provided $2.5 million in grants to farmers since 2011. Last year, a national annual conference drew 500 attendees to Austin, Texas. Other services include a database of apprenticeship opportunities and connecting veterans to other educational resources and ag supplier discounts.

"Agriculture faces a lot of concerns today, and one of them is human capital," O'Gorman points out. "Farmers are aging, and these young veterans are the best of the best. They have put their lives on the line and love the opportunity production ag offers them. They have character and determination, and are becoming the new generation of farmers. We want them to stay with that lifelong path."


Aaron White grew up on a 300-acre farm near Boxholm, Iowa, where his stepfather raised crops and cattle, sheep, hogs and goats. "I joined the Marines out of high school as my ticket out of Iowa to see the world," he says. "What I learned is that once I was away from the farm, I couldn't wait to get back."

White was in boot camp in California when 9/11 happened. He became a machine gunner and was sent to Bahrain to protect U.S. ships. His second deployment was to Afghanistan.

"I saw a lot of cool things overseas but also some really bad things," he says. "While I was there, I really got the itch to farm as I watched the Afghan people farm so simplistically. I felt empathy for them and gratitude for what we have in the U.S. It was very eye-opening for me."

After leaving the Marines in 2005, White attended Simpson College, played football and majored in elementary education. He met his wife, Dana, at school and started teaching in Wyoming. After two years and a baby, they returned to Carlisle, Iowa. White helped his father-in-law, Joe Dunn, farm while teaching fifth grade. In 2011, Dunn introduced him to an older couple who had pasture for rent. White subsequently bought eight cow/calf pairs and today has 25 pairs and 440 acres.

"I am still teaching, and we now have four children. I am working toward farming full-time. It is baby steps and slow progress, but I have learned so much," White says.

Through an FVC grant, White purchased some farm equipment and a bull for his herd. He also won a tractor through the Kubota "Geared to Give," a partnership program with FVC to provide financial and equipment support to farming veterans. He continues to trade labor for use of his father-in-law's equipment. White is optimistic that with the older generation retiring, more opportunities will come up to farm additional acres.

"There are a lot of similarities between the military and farming," White explains. "You spend 98% of your time outdoors, have to make decisions and complete missions. The difference is that in the military, sometimes you see immediate results, and sometimes you don't. In farming, you see results every year that help you to make better decisions. I have a sense of pride serving the country both ways, but nothing makes me as proud as helping feed the country."


Bryan Cleveland witnessed firsthand the complications having a parent deployed can have on children. As a high school U.S. and world history teacher near Fort Riley, Kansas, he gained an appreciation for what students had to manage.

"I had not considered entering the military until the war in Iraq started in 2003 during my first year of teaching. At the time, I was married and had a daughter," Cleveland says. "I felt a tremendous respect for those students and a sense of guilt I had not entered the military after 9/11. I felt I needed to contribute to our nation's fight against global terrorism."

Cleveland approached a Marine recruiter in 2004 and left for Officer Candidate School that fall. He became a logistics officer, serving in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2010.

"As a logistics officer for 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, I had the amazing opportunity as the primary logistics planner for two large-scale operations," he says. "Supporting those Marines in our fight against the Taliban was a once-in-a-lifetime chance I will forever feel grateful to have received."

Cleveland grew up a city kid with farm connections. His grandpa farmed near Concordia, Kansas, and his dad, Mike, tried to farm for a short time in the 1980s. He moved into ag sales as a result of the farm financial crisis, but Cleveland still spent time on the farm when he could.

His grandfather retired in 1992 and rented out his 1,000 acres. In 2008, Cleveland's dad took over the farm. "I was on active duty until 2013," he explains. "In 2014, I approached my dad about becoming part of the operation. He gave me the opportunity to fulfill that dream by agreeing to make me a partner."

With a wife and now three children, Cleveland moved back to Kansas in 2015 to farm and teach at St. John's Military School. When the school closed a few years later, Cleveland began farming full-time. Since 2015, the Clevelands have added another 560 acres, growing corn, soybeans, wheat and milo. This year, Cleveland will add 500 acres that he will farm on his own.

"My dad is an awesome mentor," he says. "I want to be prepared to take over seamlessly when he retires, so I am taking college classes and reading everything I can so I will be ready."

Cleveland sees parallels between farming and logistics. "You have to be prepared for challenges and do detailed planning. Things don't always work out like they are supposed to, so you have to be able to handle adversity and be efficient.

"I am under my dad's wing as the fifth generation on our farm," he adds. "In 2020, it will be our family's 150th year of farming. I can't imagine doing anything else. I am living my dream."


Spence Pennington is a people person but admits he enjoys farming areas where there are no people within 10 miles. The full-time Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel is also a full-time farmer. He appreciates how the solace of the farm offsets the stress of telecommuting and managing dozens of people. And, it's certainly more appealing than the stress of being deployed.

"Farming is in my blood and has eased that stress, but considering where commodity and input prices have been, the farm brings a whole new kind of pressure," he explains.

Pennington grew up on a 7,000-acre farm in one of the poorest counties in the country, Willacy County, on the southern tip of Texas. His family has a long military history, instilling in him the need to serve his country. In addition to his father and other local veterans, one of his biggest influences was his paternal grandmother, a World War II Army nurse who received the Bronze Star for her actions in the Pacific, and stories about his mother's great uncle, General George Gordon Meade, who was at the Battle of Gettysburg.

He signed on with Texas A&M's Corps of Cadets and Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). His goal was to become a military pilot, but he was denied because he's color blind.

Instead, Pennington became an aircraft maintenance officer. "I managed the health and readiness of the aircraft fleet and lead mechanics," he says. He served on both U.S. coasts, in Germany and Japan, and had two deployments to Iraq, as well as Africa, South Asia and Australia.

"I have seen the world, but when there was an opening to return to the farm, I did," he adds.

In 2014, Pennington accepted an incentive to leave active duty as the federal government downsized services. Coincidentally, there was an opportunity to buy out a retiring farmer and his equipment. Today, the Pennington family raises 15,000 acres of cotton, grain sorghum, sugar cane, corn, sesame seed and Brangus cattle near Raymondville, Texas. The operation includes his parents, brother and sister, and 14 employees.

Pennington and his wife, Emily, a flight nurse still serving in the military reserve and a nurse practitioner at a region hospital, have two daughters.

While he commutes between two jobs, Pennington notes managing both has made him a planner, risk-taker and people and processes leader. Farming taught him about maintaining equipment and instilled a work ethic; the military taught supply chain and process management, and technical skills he uses daily in agriculture.

Pennington has been an FVC member for two years and is doing his part to assist fellow vets transition to civilian life. He employs one veteran who also comes from a farming background. Thanks to training, the 25-year employee has become their farm's go-to precision-farming equipment operator. Pennington hopes to hire more veterans in the future.

"I read that the U.S. population is made up of 1% veterans and 1% farmers. I count myself fortunate to be in that elite group that covers both. When I was deployed, there were people who wanted you there and people who didn't. I lost airplanes and people. There were successes and failures. But, you get back on the horse and go at it again, because people depend on you every day. You're not allowed to quit."

Neither will the FVC and its mission to help veterans make farming a career.

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