Food

How a Virginia Nonprofit Is Helping Veterans Launch Careers in Farming

The innovative program tackles two issues: the aging population of farmers and military veterans looking for new careers.

Old farmer displays his American pride by holding the U.S. flag
Photo Credit: Brocreative/Shutterstock

A nonprofit organization in Virginia has designed a potentially beneficial solution to two looming social issues in American society: the aging population of farmers and military veterans looking for new careers.

The Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture’s Veteran Farmer Program aims to develop a new cohort of farmers by providing opportunities and support to veterans.

The Center excels at community-focused programming that provides access to healthy food and establishes connections between local farms and consumers in the D.C. metro area. These programs include a Mobile Market that distributes produce to underserved communities and a farm camp that educates students about food production.

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Their latest initiative continues that work by encouraging local and sustainable food production. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census, the average age of farmers has been rising over the past 30 years. The average age of principal farm operators is currently 58 years old. In addition, the number of new farmers (defined as those who have been operating for less than five years), has dropped by more than 20 percent since 2007.

The veteran population in the United States is more than 21 million, and 5.3 percent of those veterans are unemployed. Arcadia reports that veterans are 45 percent more likely to start their own businesses than other Americans, and they have the physical and mental toughness it takes to be successful in agriculture, thanks to their years of intensive training and service.

These two trends, combined with the ever-quickening growth of the local and organic food movement, create a serendipitous scenario that Arcadia has answered with their Veteran Farmer Program.

The initiative is self-described as a “multi-layered, hands-on educational program” that will “develop new farmers; capitalize on the growing market in local, sustainably grown foods; and encourage entrepreneurship and job creation.”

Launched in September of 2015, the Program is made up of three branches: the Veteran Farmer Reserve Program, the Veteran Farm Fellowship Program, and Veteran Farmer Land Access.

The Reserve Program is a part-time education program that lasts 12 months, with one weekend meeting per month and a commitment to 80 hours of hands-on agricultural training at Arcadia Farm. Training topics and tasks include livestock management, greenhouse and organic farming, farm field trips, pest control, marketing, and business planning. This is a fee-based program.

The Veteran Farm Fellowship Program is a full-time paid training program that requires a year of intensive on-farm training at Arcadia Farm and an optional second year spent in a paid externship at a local farm. Training with Arcadia involves working toward achieving Arcadia’s mission, specifically through increasing food access, working with local chefs and retailers, and nutrition education. Farm Fellows also participate in the Farmer Reserve weekend workshops. The second year involves learning techniques for specialized operations such as greenhouses, aquaponic systems, or fruit orchards. During both years, professional farmers will mentor the fellows in producing a business plan for their own farms.

The Veteran Farm Land Access branch of the initiative is designed to help Veteran Farm Fellows find affordable land when they are ready to start their own farms. Arcadia aids in identifying suitable properties and negotiating lease terms. They are also developing a small incubator farm in Alexandria where Veteran Farm Fellows can work, and they have committed to purchasing produce for their Mobile Market from veteran farmers in the region.

While Arcadia is no longer accepting applications for the 2016 programs, interested and qualified applicants can contact Arcadia at [email protected] to find out more about future programs. 

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Lani Furbank is a writer and photographer based in the DC metro area, where she covers the intersection of food, farming, and the environment for local and national publications. She studied broadcast journalism and environmental studies at James Madison University, and is passionate about supporting small-scale farms through mindful food choices and increasing access to nutritious food for communities around the world. Follow her on Twitter @lanifurbank.