LOUISBURG, N.C. — Fewer young Americans are pursuing careers in agriculture, a growing concern among the nation's farmers whose average age now approaches 60, and the federal government is hopeful that military veterans will help reverse the trend.
But while more vets are expressing interest in farming, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, American labor statistics show no real upsurge in them taking jobs down on the farm. They comprise about 2 percent of the country's entire agricultural workforce, a figure that has remained flat since at least 2007.
The USDA tracks veterans' interest in farming through loan applications for land purchases. Since 2009, the agency has granted $466 million to about 4,000 vets, says Lanon Beccam, a former Army officer who now works as the USDA's veterans liaison. But overall, of the 4 million veterans living in the nation's rural areas, around 6 percent — some 240,000 — work in agriculture.
The government is determined to grow the number of veterans who work in agricultural jobs as a means to help replenish the industry's labor force. To lower the barrier for them, the USDA provides loans and grants — some worth several thousand dollars — designed to help beginning veteran farmers and ranchers get the training and education they need to get their operations off the ground. In turn, veterans who become experienced at farming and ranching are encouraged to train others.
Robert Elliot has been mentoring fellow veterans for the last three years. After a difficult transition out of the Marine Corps, he decided to return home, here to Louisburg.
With six chickens and more than 800 acres given to him as a wedding gift from his family, Elliot started Cypress Hall Farm in 2013, where today he raises chickens and hogs, and grows a variety of vegetables. He sells meat and produce at local's farmers markets, and has carved out a comfortable quality of life in this quiet community about 30 miles northeast of North Carolina's capital, Raleigh.
As part of the veteran farm program he founded, Elliot teaches his techniques to other veterans interested in getting involved in the industry, offering them small plots of land on his 40-acre farm — the rest is leased to conventional farming, he said — to experiment.
Robert Elliot, a Marine veteran who turned to agriculture in his post-military career, now teaches aspiring farmers how the work is done.
Photo Credit: Jasmine Cen/Medill News Service
Acquiring land, Elliot said, is one of the biggest challenges facing those new to the industry. The average cost of farm land and associated buildings was about $3,020 per acre last year, up 2.4 percent from 2014, according to the USDA. The property costs on the comparatively small plot that Cypress Hall sits upon would run between $90,000 to $120,000.
This is why the USDA has been encouraging vets to take advantage of its programs.
Seth Eure, an active duty Marine, is working with Elliot to learn the trade and, he hopes, realize his dream of becoming an organic peanut farmer. Eure has come to Cypress Hall on a "permissive temporary assignment detail" from Camp Lejeune, so he can develop his farming and business. He wants to become an agricultural entrepreneur upon transitioning out of the military.
Growing up on a large-scale conventional farm with more than 40,000 chickens, Eure wasn't sure at first about going into this line of work for his post-military career. He said he enjoys being outdoors, though, and made his decision after spending time at Cypress Hall. Eure said he plans to apply for a USDA loan after he completes his studies with Elliot.
As a farmer, "I am nourishing life," says Eure, who wears a black metal wristband in honor of a fallen comrade. "I got to see that baby chicken hatch from an egg, grow up to be a full-grown chicken, and lay its own egg. ... Walking outside with my cup of coffee in the morning, and a chicken comes to greet me at the door and say hi. It is a good feeling the animal trusts me with its life."
There's other motivation, too. The veterans-helping-veterans approach to farming is seen as one means to help those who've experienced service-connected post-traumatic stress and, it is hoped, to reduce instances of suicide. Farming provides goals and a sense of mission.
Elliot, who says he's lost Marine buddies to suicide, was laid off from a civilian contract job with the Marine Corps in 2011, a time when veterans' unemployment stood at 8.3 percent, according to the Labor Department. He earned an associate degree from a community college and moved on to North Carolina State University where he majored in engineering.
But Elliot struggled to fit in, he says, and soon left school for the sanctity of his family farm. Working with his chickens, he says, has been more rewarding.
"I think it was more a cultural shock than anything that really messed me up," he says. "I couldn't relate to the way that civilians acted. ... Out there is the civilian world, nobody cares about you, is the impression I get, whereas in the Marine Corps, and in the military, one of the first things you are taught is you take care of each other."
As the USDA looks to boost the number of veterans who join this workforce, it relies on a nationwide network of grassroots organizations to help teach the requisite skills, connect individuals with rank-and-file employment opportunities and support more ambitious entrepreneurial endeavors.
Rich Murphy, program director for Veterans to Farmers, a Colorado-based nonprofit, says the program provides classes about farming techniques. Inquiries, from veterans across the country, are on the rise, he said, adding that about 50 percent of those in the program are interested in learning about small-scale production and using farming as a form of therapy.
In Colorado, the Food Cottage Act allows an individual to sell certain types of products from their home kitchens. So this provides incomes for modest producers. Those who want to test the waters should start small anyway, Murphy recommends.
Ultimately, the profession is well suited for young veterans, Elliot says.
"The American veteran is the one who needs to be able to take over the farms of tomorrow," he says, "... simply because there is no other demographic of people that has a work ethic, gets dirty, gets up early, goes to bed late and is willing to put in whatever they have to do to accomplish the mission."