By Ariel Rivers
Across the United States, the high average age (57.5 years) of farmers and ranchers has motivated many conservation districts to support beginning farmers and ranchers in a number of ways as they begin their new operations.
In Spokane, Wash., the Spokane Conservation District (SCD), led by director Vicki Carter, is taking an innovative approach to outreach and education for beginning farmers and ranchers by engaging the high population of military veterans in the area through Vets on the Farm.
The program meets multiple community needs, increasing the availability of local and sustainable farming products, training beginning farmers and ranchers, and supporting those who have served the United States through their military service. The multi-faceted program provides opportunities for veterans to transition into the workforce, make and build connections to others and the community, and participate in multiple educational programs.
Four years ago, Carter attended a local viewing of the documentary Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields. Within SCD’s boundaries sits Fairchild Air Force Base, and Spokane County thus has a high population of veterans; the film helped spark Carter’s thoughts on how to support veterans in their transition back to civilian life while also addressing SCD’s ability to train the future agriculturalists of the area. After conversations with several partners, including Michael Gorman, executive director of Farmer Veteran Coalition, Carter partnered with Washington State University and Northwest Farm Credit Services to start Vets on the Farm. A generous donation of a farmhouse and three acres of land from a local landowner also provided the space to start a market garden and highlight small-scale farming practices.
To participate in the program, veterans fill out an application highlighting their favorite skills learned while in the service and their goals while a part of Vets on the Farm. They are then invited to attend monthly meetings to build connections, network and learn from others participating in the program. Every participating veteran then attend Cultivating Success, a 12-week intensive program on farming and ranching, through which they design a business plan describing an operation they hope to start. Participants may also earn continuing education credits though the program, which may be applied to professional certifications or their associate degree through Washington State University.
Through SCD’s various connections and based on the participants’ business plans developed in Cultivating Success, Carter identifies a local mentor to help support the veteran in their transition to farming or ranching as a profession. These collaborations have been very successful, with several mentors and veterans continuing to work together after initially partnering through Vets on the Farm. The veterans have started a variety of operations, from bison ranching to beekeeping, and sell their products at local cooperatives, farm stands and farmers markets.
A recent Washington Grown video highlights the market farm and several employees and volunteers of Vets on the Farm, showcasing some of the small farm practices implemented on the farm’s three acres. While the program primarily focuses on veterans as beginning farmers, Carter indicated that the market farm is an excellent training ground for small-scale farming opportunities. Vets on the Farm has provided an important link between consumers and the local food system; the farm is part of the growing South Spokane Farm Corridor, an effort to provide information to consumers about how food is produced in the county.
The program, initially started in SCD, now covers seven counties in eastern Washington, including Benton Conservation District in Kennewick, Wash., home of NACD First Vice President Michael Crowder. Crowder, a veteran himself from a family with a strong military legacy, regularly invites participants in the Vets on the Farm Programs to participate in a free hunt day at Barker Ranch. The day further immerses program participants in the farming, ranching and conservation community, and Crowder stated it is a very special day.
Carter credits the success of Vets on the Farm to these broader connections available through the conservation districts. In the four years since the program began, Vets on the Farm has trained over 200 veterans in Spokane County alone. Carter also indicated that the best part of the program is the people: “The veterans are amazing, and this is a great way to give back to people who have served us.”