At a speech in Austin in February, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted that 40 percent of the people serving in the military come from rural America, which means that a significant number of military veterans returning home from duty overseas have some experience with farming or ranching.
Others want to become farmers or ranchers when their military service is done, but there is a lot to know before starting out.
A workshop in Belton earlier this month for military veterans returning to or wanting to get started in agriculture attempted to answer some of the questions they had but mainly let them know where to find the answers and where help is available.
Army veteran John Crawson was hit by shrapnel and shot in the shoulder last year while serving in Afghanistan. Thirteen months later, after participating in the Wounded Warrior Project and volunteering at the NRCS field office in Hillsboro, he told the veterans how he signed up for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) for improvements to his family's land in Tulia and got a micro-loan from the FSA as part of his preparation for life after the military.
“It lightens the burden,” he said of the cost-sharing and technical assistance available through EQIP. “You will still spend a little bit of money, but they cover most of it. My advice is to take advantage of everything they offer.”
The FSA micro-loan, he added, reduced his interest rate from 8 percent at his bank to 1.25 percent.
Dr. Greg Clary, an economist who retired from Texas AgriLife Extension and is now chairman the Texas Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, provided the business perspective. He described a wide array of “natural resource-based” business opportunities that fall under the umbrella of agriculture: deer farming, aquaculture, herb farming, fruit and vegetable production, subscription agriculture (CSAs), agri-entertainment and agri-education.
“Any business starts with an idea,” Clary said. “Massage that idea into a business that generates income.”
Low risk, he added, usually results in low returns. Raising a few goats is not risky but it's not profitable unless there is a business and management plan behind it, he said.
Also: Know thyself.
“If you don't necessarily like people or want them on your property, you can probably throw agri-education and agri-entertainment right out the window,” he said.
Clary described one small-scale produce farmer he worked with who had 75 regular customers that he delivered to every week. The farmer complained of all the time he spent driving instead of farming. Clary suggested he quit delivering and resume farming; have the customers come to him. No, the farmer said, his customers wouldn't drive to the country to pick up the food. But he took Clary's advice and found that 50 of his customers didn't mind making the drive.
“Sure, he went from 75 customers to 50, but he was making more money with 50 customers than he was at 75,” Clary said. “That's what you always have to look at.”
Cheryl Grenwelge, an assistant professor and Extension specialist with Texas AgrAbility, told the veterans they bring a unique set of skills and experiences to agriculture, even if they return home without some of the mobility they had when they left. (Help from Texas AgrAbility is available not only to veterans but also to anyone in agriculture suffering from an injury or medical condition that makes it difficult to work.)
“You know what hard work is,” she said. “You know how to set a goal and reach it. You bring a lot of unique experiences and talents. If you come back with a disabling condition, there are still ways you can work on the farm or ranch. We want you to know there is help available, even if you come back with a disability.”
One of those ways is the Action Trackchair, which was invented by a small company in Michigan and is sold locally through Carlson Mobility in Round Rock. It's essentially an off-road wheelchair designed to go where other wheelchairs dare not tread. The newest model is the Action Trackstander, which allows the user to stand up in the wheelchair. Doug Carlson said the new model was invented largely due to requests from farmers and ranchers.
Carlson said the chairs cost $15,000, and while the cost isn't covered by the Veterans Administration or Medicare, funding help is beginning to trickle in from organizations and individuals, including political commentator Bill O'Reilly.
“DARS (Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services) is one of the organizations stepping up to the plate,” Carlson said. “The Independence Fund has put up a million dollars to buy chairs for veterans, and the Semper Fi organization has also come up with some money. We would like to see more people who need these be able to afford them.”