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Just in time for Veterans Day, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the job outlook for veterans continues to be bleak. The unemployment rate for recent veterans — those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — was almost 12 percent for the first 10 months of 2010, higher than the national average, which is currently 9.6 percent. 

Veterans can have a difficult time after returning from combat. Unemployment woes, combined with difficulties like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), put veterans at risk for homelessness, which also affects veterans at a greater rate than civilians. They also face a shockingly high suicide rate, perhaps when they have nothing left but despair.

But with all this “bad news” there is something good going on for veterans, even locally, in agriculture.

In Sonoma County, a well-established, vibrant program called the Farmer-Veteran Coalition (FVC), started by Santa Cruz-area organic farmer Michael O’Gorman, helps veterans become farmers. Through the FVC, Sonoma farmers like vintner Joe Judge have taken in Iraq and Afghanistan vets, mentored them in the business of farming, and helped them to become self-sufficient.  

I got a chance to meet O’Gorman, Judge and others at the Northern California “Food and Farming Veteran Career Fair” this past March in Santa Rosa. 

Judge is a member of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau as well as the president of the Bennett Valley Grape Growers Association. He’s mentored three Iraq vets on his 10-acre syrah and sauvignon blanc vineyard. In a recent article, he spoke about his motivation for doing so: “We are indebted to them for their service; I look upon this as a method for repaying my personal debt.”  

O’Gorman is equally eloquent on the reason for turning veterans into farmers. He says, “Farming is mentally, physically and psychologically challenging. It’s not just the plants and animals that are healing — it’s having a mission, where young people who want to work hard and produce real goods are valued again. It’s being needed — and our farming community needs young, bright, strong people who stand back up when they are knocked down.”

Recently, FVC gave a presentation to the California Board of Food and Agriculture. Board member Craig McNamara “spoke eloquently about the need to welcome veterans into our agricultural community,” according to the FVC’s Facebook site.

FVC gave a start to Iraq veteran Matt McCue and his partner, Lily Schneider, who run Shooting Star CSA (community-supported agriculture) in Suisun Valley, a 10-acre certified organic farm. FVC says it works with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans “who want to continue to serve their country by feeding its citizens.” 

Award-winning “Archi’s Acres” in the San Diego area, started by another Iraq veteran and his wife, grows organic crops such as basil and employs veterans from several wars. They promote a Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program “to offer combat veterans meaningful employment opportunities in a high-growth industry.” 

They also work with neighboring Marine base Camp Pendleton and its Transition Assistance Program to offer “an intensive six-week course in sustainable agriculture while they are on active duty awaiting separation from the military.” In the course, trainees develop business plans, build resumes, learn about hydroponics, drip and micro irrigation, soil biology, environmental management, and meet with industry and business leaders. 

In Florida, another Iraq veteran, Adam Burke, together with his wife Michele, started Veteran Farm, where they grow blueberries. (The farm’s tagline is “home of the red, white and blueberry.”) FVC also helped them get their start.

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When the FVC put on a career fair back in March, it was dynamic and well-attended. The group partnered with the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Santa Rosa Junior College, and the North Bay Veterans Resource Center to put on the fair. I even ran into a few local Iraq vets who had made the trek over to Santa Rosa for it: a former Marine who lives in Calistoga and an Army vet who lives in Lake Berryessa.

While it’s true that Sonoma has a larger overall population, and more vets than Napa County — 35,000 compared to 11,000, according to the local county veteran service officers — economic and agricultural opportunities in the two counties should be somewhat comparable.

With FVC spearheading the national movement of turning veterans into farmers, and so much activity coming out of neighboring Sonoma County on this, I believe we should be copying Sonoma’s initiative and resolve here in Napa, and finding or creating equivalent opportunities for veterans in agriculture here. 

What can we get started in the Napa Valley — using our rich agricultural heritage — that gives veterans a hand up into a more successful future? Let’s start the process today.  

(Lily Casura is the founder and executive director of Veterans Green Partners, (800) 262-0428.)

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