Travel to DeWitt, Iowa, and you’ll find a stubborn farmer growing an acre of pick-your-own blueberries. You may wonder why in the world he chose to grow blueberries in Iowa. To discover the answer to the crop selection, you’ll need to hear Jason Kerr’s story. From a farm boy to a hotel manager, he’s been a soldier in the U.S. Army in Iraq, a veteran employment specialist, and now a blueberry farmer.
Urgency to serve
Kerr grew up on an onion and pick-your-own strawberry farm in Pleasant Valley, Iowa. In the late 1980s when farming became financially difficult, the family lost the farm. So instead of pursuing a career as a farmer, Kerr went to college and became a hotel manager. Kerr worked as a hotel manager for almost a decade before joining the Army.
“I thought about joining the military before college but, thankfully, there really wasn’t anything going on then,” says Kerr.
One event triggered Kerr to leave his established career and join the Army. That was September 11.
“Usually people join and then pay for college,” he explains. “That wasn’t my motivation at all. I come from a military family, and I had an urgency to serve that I just can’t explain. When September 11 happened, I wasn’t happy with it. I’m not the kind of guy who can just send $100 to the New York firefighters and feel like I did my part.”
Kerr joined the Army in 2003. After being injured in Iraq, Kerr’s service time was cut a little short, and he returned home in 2008.
Tomorrow is a blessing
There’s definitely no question that serving is in my family,” says Kerr as he explains that his father, grandfather, and several uncles all served in the military. “Even though we had gotten out of farming, farming is also in our blood.”
It took Kerr a while after leaving the Army to get back to his roots.
When he first came back to Iowa, Kerr returned to his hotel management job. “There were quite a few changes while I was gone; changes with being back home, changes with me, and changes with the hotel company,” he explains. “I still cared a lot about taking care of people, but it was a different kind of care. I was a gunner on a Humvee in my platoon, and that’s a different kind of taking care of people than working as a hotel manager.”
Kerr found that the meaning of life had taken a different turn for him, and this changed his career and life path.
“I really started to realize how much a blessing tomorrow is,” says Kerr. “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.
“The hotel management wasn’t enough,” he elaborates. “It wasn’t what I wanted to come home to.”
So when Kerr had the opportunity to become a veteran’s representative for the state of Iowa, he jumped at the chance.
“I wasn’t able to stay in the Army because of my injury,” says Kerr. “This job was still a way that I could help veterans that were coming back.”
Kerr currently works as a veteran program outreach coordinator, helping veterans with a significant barrier to employment find careers. While Kerr enjoys this role, he still isn’t completely content with his life.
“Here I was with what looked like the perfect job,” he explains. “I still wasn’t personally satisfied with what I was doing in my community and for myself.” Kerr found the satisfaction he was looking for in the dirt.
Kerr purchased a 10-acre piece of land for his family with the intention of eventually growing something on the extra land. “I came across the idea of pick-your-own blueberries,” says Kerr. “From our strawberry farm, that mentality was in my blood. I knew how to do a pick-your-own farm.”
So Kerr started growing blueberries on a 1-acre patch.
“I realized how happy I was whenever I was working on the farm,” he says. “You can call it work therapy, having time to think. Call it whatever you want, but when I was working in the dirt and worrying about growing my blueberries, I realized there wasn’t much room to worry about negative things.
“Basically, I was happiest when I was farming, so I just wanted to do more,” says Kerr.
Eventually, Kerr added about 17 acres of corn and soybeans to the operation, and he plans on expanding even further. “Right now, I’m a part-time farmer and a full-time veteran representative,” says Kerr. “My goal is to be a full-time farmer.”
To achieve that goal, Kerr is getting some help from the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) and the new Homegrown By Heroes program.
Originally created in Kentucky by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, the FVC is now administering the Homegrown By Heroes program nationwide with funding by Farm Credit. Homegrown By Heroes is a label that veterans can use on their products and on their farms to identify themselves as farmer veterans.
“Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says 46% of those in the Armed Forces come from rural areas, which is only 16% of the population,” says Gary Matteson, VP for Young, Beginning, Small Farmer Programs and Outreach at the Farm Credit Council, and board president for the FVC. “These veterans are the people who live near us, who want to farm near us, who are the friends and neighbors we likely already know. Programs like Homegrown By Heroes let us help veterans and give people a specific way to support veterans.”
The Homegrown By Heroes label can go on any farm-grown product. The farmer must be a veteran or on active duty, and he or she must also be a 50% owner and operator of the farm business. The FVC has farmers across the country who are certified to use the label on a variety of different farms, including sweet corn, blueberries, flowers, cattle, corn, soybeans, wheat, lentils, barley, and more.
“Many of these people want to tell their story and what farming has done for them,” says Michael O’Gorman, executive director for the FVC. “The Homegrown By Heroes label is a way to tell the whole story from the exciting transition from the military into agriculture. It’s going to create a way for the public to support it.”
Kerr sees the potential in using the label for marketing his products and his farm.
“This is a network with like-minded individuals and yet a diversity of products,” he says. “It’s really nice to have the vet camaraderie working together at home.”