The U.S. faces a slow moving crisis in agriculture.
Over the next 20 years, we will lose 700,000 farmers. The average age of the American farmer today is 58.
To close the coming farmer deficit -- 700,000 -- we need to make about 25,000 new farmers a year. As a nation, we have produced just 1,200 new farmers in the last two years. That is not a replacement rate.
Right now American farmers produce enough calories to sustain every man woman and child in our country. In 20 years, unless we do something bold, that will not be the case.
Farming is tough. Farming is physical. It is financially risky, with low margins and much outside of a farmers control. It is emotionally challenging. It requires the ability to make long term plans, adapt them on the fly, to do something different everyday, to respond to crises, to hold faith that the seed planted now will bear fruit in three months. Farming requires the heart of an entrepreneur, the brain of an accountant, the strength of a weightlifter (most farm jobs hold as a requirement that you can lift 50 lbs above your head, regularly.)
At the same time, the nation produces 200,000 new veterans every year. You see where I'm going with this.
These vets -- some with just four years under their belts and others with whole careers behind them -- are among the few Americans with the grit to be farmers. They know how to plan and adapt those plans. They are mission-oriented and don't quit until a job is done -- be it taking a hill or harvesting an entire field. They can work as a team or independently, and they absorb training like sponges.
I know this personally because the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture is training 12 military veterans to be farmers now, on land that George Washington cultivated after he retired his military commission 200 years ago.
The 12 members of our USDA-backed program come to us from all four services. Their interests and plans for agriculture vary wildly -- a Navy intelligence officer owns land in the Bahamas and wants to make an eco-resort and grow food for his guests. An Army vet wants a subsistence farm to feed her family and sell a little bit roadside. A Marine veteran, wounded in combat, wants a vegetable farm and on-site meadery from the honey he will raise. A special forces veteran just bought six acres and is planting now. A Navy veteran is raising five pigs and planting vegetables. An Army veteran is in culinary school and wants a farm-to-table cafe where he will teach underserved children about growing and cooking healthy food.
They are united by their discipline and work ethic; their desire to create something real, lasting, and healthy for their families. And all of them want meaningful work, work that continues their lives in public service.
These people, men and women, all stepped up to serve once, and now they are offering to serve again. Some have land, some have experience. But others are called to the work, and need land, training, and support as they commence their second acts in agriculture.
Arcadia offers two training tracks -- the Veteran Reserve Program and the Veteran Farm Fellowship. The Reserve is one weekend a month of intensive cultivation and farm-appropriate business training, along with visits to successful area farms to understand the full range of what is possible. The Veteran Farm Fellowship is a paid, year-long fellowship on our farm working with our professional farmers. Approved by the VA as an on-the-job training program, our Fellows can draw on GI Bill benefits for additional financial support during their paid training. Both the Fellows and the Reservists work shoulder to shoulder with pros on our farm, learning soil science, pest control, planting and irrigation in real time. Our intention is that these new farmers will experience everything -- bountiful harvests, hail and drought, flooding and crop failure -- with us the first time rather than when they are on their own acres. The military calls it left-seat, right seat training.
By far the most rewarding outcome of our program is the esprit d'corps these veterans have found with each other. They are funny and profane and gentle when they need to be with each other. They support each other. They help plant crops on each others farms. They know what it is to be a unit, and I think they missed it.
Arcadia is now seeking 15 more veterans who want to become farmers to join the Arcadia Veteran Farmer Reserve. No experience necessary -- just your grit, your discipline, and your commitment to continue your life in public service.
Pamela Hess is the Executive Director of the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. She came to Arcadia from journalism. A career national security journalist, Pam covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Pentagon and CIA with the Associated Press and United Press International. After a brief foray into national politics as a communications director on Capitol Hill, Pam returned to her first love: food and sustainable farms. In 2011, she took the helm of a local food and wine magazine that celebrated sustainable food and farming in the Capitol Foodshed, and in the course of it, met and fell in love with Arcadia. She brings to Arcadia a deep commitment to its mission, a large and expanding network of farmers and food advocates, and a great reputation within the sustainable food community.