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SF Blog: The Story Behind the Fighter to Farmer Contest

In late 2013, longtime Successful Farming magazine editor John Walter sent me a release about a new program called Homegrown By Heroes. John, who was in the process of planning his retirement, was always quick to lend a hand to new members of the staff. At the time, I had just completed my first year at Successful Farming, and John thought the story on farmer veterans would be a good one for me to take on. Boy, was he right.

That news release took me on a three-year journey, where I had the chance to meet retired and active service members who continued to serve their country by producing food. I was able to give back, in my own small way, by telling their stories to the readers of Successful Farming magazine and Agriculture.com. But I wanted to do more. My idea was the Fighter to Farmer contest, as a way to both recognize and thank farmer veterans.

That’s the condensed version. The real story contains a few more characters.

Michael O’Gorman

I met Michael for the first time in 2014 at the first Farmer Veteran Coalition Conference. While I was just beginning to fully understand the importance of farmer veterans to our country, Michael was already actively working on ways to clear the path for veterans who wanted to return home and farm.

In 2008, Michael started the Farmer Veteran Coalition out of the back of his pickup truck. After working in production agriculture for nearly 40 years, he thought it would be a good retirement project. He got more than he bargained for.

Today, the Farmer Veteran Coalition has more than 8,500 members nationwide. More than $1 million in fellowship funds have been given to members. Homegrown By Heroes, which is a branding program used to promote farmer veteran products, now has 609 participants in 48 states.

If that wasn’t enough of an accomplishment, Michael also worked with members of the Senate Agriculture Committee while the 2014 Farm Bill was being shaped. The Military Veterans Ag Liaison position and the microloan program for farmer veterans both came out of these conversations.

Despite his growing list of responsibilities, Michael still makes time to help pesky journalists, including this one. He’s provided multiple farmer veteran leads for stories, and he helped judge the Fighter to Farmer contest.

The last time I saw him, Michael said he will officially retire in the next few years. He’s certainly earned it: His efforts have not only improved the lives of thousands of current farmer veterans, but he has also helped lay the foundation to ensure this work continues.

Jason Kerr

Jason Kerr was one of the farmer veteran leads that Michael’s office passed along to me back in 2014. After I got his information, I set up a phone interview.

While that interview was over two years ago, I can still remember how I felt that day. I had been in a crummy mood for no real reason. But I put on a smile (this is important – even for phone interviews) and gave Jason a call. 

That phony smile was quickly replaced with a real one and lots of laughter. For starters, Jason owns a pick-your-own blueberry farm in DeWitt, Iowa. That was a new one on me.

The decision to grow blueberries in Iowa makes sense once you know a bit more about Jason. He has a great sense of humor. He’s stubborn and determined. And he grew up on an onion and pick-your-own strawberry farm in Pleasant Valley, Iowa.

However, it was his attitude that really put things into perspective for me.

Jason joined the Army after 9/11 and served in Iraq until 2008, when his service time was cut short after an injury. When he came home, he decided to become a farmer instead of returning to hotel management. The meaning of life had taken a different turn for him and managing a hotel was no longer enough.

“I really started to realize how much a blessing tomorrow is,” he says. “Someday is a bad word, and tomorrow is a blessing. I don’t like saying I’m going to do things someday, because I almost got cut short and didn’t make it to someday.”

Those words reminded me how fortunate I am to have heroes like Jason who defend freedom so that I can enjoy it. How fortunate all Americans are.

It was his story that inspired me to find more ways to tell the story of farmer veterans.

Grasshopper Mowers

I pitched the Fighter to Farmer idea to our sales team in 2015. For this type of editorial project, we look for the right partner to help promote and support the contest.  

Grasshopper Mowers has partnered with Military Warriors Support Foundation for several years to support combat-wounded veterans as they transition out of the military into civilian life. The company seemed like a perfect partner. Luckily for me and this year’s winners, Grasshopper Mowers enthusiastically agreed to sponsor the Fighter to Farmer contest.

Fighter to Farmer Winners

The Fighter to Farmer contest kicked off this past spring. To my amazement, we received more than 120 entries from farmer veterans who served in almost every war and conflict from World War II to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

While each story was different, there were common threads throughout. Hardworking farm kids who felt a duty to serve their country. The difficult balancing act of managing a farming operation and spending time away from home during training or deployments. The peace that farming brings after the traumas of war.

To all of these veterans who have returned home to farm, thank you for your service.

Choosing the winners was incredibly difficult, but I think you’ll agree that each of our winners has made a great contribution to our country. You can read their stories in the October and November issues of Successful Farming magazine as well as online at Agriculture.com. Plus, the Successful Farming TV show will highlight the winners on November 10, just in time for Veterans Day.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look from each of the shoots:

Sergeant First Class Dave Baumann from Ashley, North Dakota:

 

Captain Mike Nocton flew A-6 Intruder Jets in the Navy for 25 years:

 

Chief Master Sergeant Bob Huttes served in the Air National Guard for 34 years:

 

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