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Support Farmer Veterans

There are a lot of similarities between farming and being in the military, says farmer and veteran Paul Kanning. “After the military, I thought about opening a sporting good store and about all the things I’d have to do. Then, I realized that being in a rural community and out in agriculture, I get to be around people with the same values as the military – people who are trustworthy and reliable. It’s a place where I can count on my neighbor for help anytime I need it.”

Kanning is one of many veterans who returned home to farm. The path from soldier to farmer is different for every veteran, but they all face more obstacles when they come home, including obtaining financing, purchasing land, learning new farming practices, and becoming the farm manager.

“The single hardest thing was getting my head around the funding required, because it’s not cheap to get into farming,” says Jamie Critelli, a New York farmer and veteran. “I had always assumed that coming out of the Army would mean something; that I’d have an easier time obtaining financing. It still took a lot of persistence.”

Critelli was a captain in the Army Reserve for eight years and served in Korea, Germany, Kosovo, and Iraq. In 2010, he opened Floral Beauty Greenhouses, a wholesale greenhouse operation.

After serving in the Air Force for 20 years, Kanning returned to his family farm, where he faced his own set of challenges.

Kanning’s father passed away eight years before he retired from the Air Force. Without a transition period to learn about managing the farm, Kanning looked for outside assistance. “A lot of the farming practices had changed in the years since I left the farm,” explains Kanning.

“No-till farming and pulse crops are really big in this area now. As a kid, I was just a laborer, so I wasn’t involved in farm management. I had a lot of learning to do and was looking for resources when I found the Farmer Veteran Coalition.”

The Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) was created to help farmer veterans find the resources they need to become successful farmers.

“It’s a pretty cool concept,” says Kanning. “Let’s link up a bunch of veterans in agriculture and use their resources to help other people come into farming.”

More than a label

Homegrown By Heroes is one of the newest programs offered by the FVC. Through the program, veterans can put the Homegrown By Heroes label on their products to show they were grown by a farmer-veteran.

Originally created in Kentucky by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, the FVC is now administering the Homegrown By Heroes program nationwide due to funding by Farm Credit.

“From the beginning of the Homegrown By Heroes program, we hoped it would grow to a national scale so it could benefit veterans from every state,” says James Comer, Kentucky agricultural commissioner. “Now, that hope has become a reality with the help of the FVC and our other generous partners. With this initiative, we can give something back to those who have given so much in defense of our country.”

The Homegrown By Heroes label can go on any farm-grown product. Farmers must be veterans or on active duty, and they 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.

“The FVC has been working to help veterans transition into agriculture and to support them in their farming efforts since the beginning of 2009,” says Michael O’Gorman, executive director of the FVC. “It became obvious to us as part of our strategic plan to eventually have a label that would support veteran-grown products.”

The most obvious way to use the label is on specialty crops sold at farmers markets. However, O’Gorman stresses that the Homegrown By Heroes label can help all farmers.

“Let’s link up a bunch of veterans in agriculture and use their resources to help other people come into farming.”

“Some of the veterans don’t immediately see how this is going to add value to their operation,” he explains. “Because they may be growing corn and soybeans and dumping their grain into the same silo as everyone else. They still get to put the Homegrown By Heroes sign outside their farm and show their participation. We can also help them find ways to tap into a market that will help them.

“The exciting thing about this is that we’ve helped veterans become farmers for the last five years,” he says. “Now, we can really help them market their product and their farm and find ways to be more successful.”

Made with integrity

Homegrown By Heroes is made in the U.S., “but this is even more powerful,” says Kanning. “Not only does it tell the consumer it was made in the U.S.A. but also it tells them a little bit about who produced the good.”

As a wheat, red lentils, and fava bean farmer in Flaxville, Montana, Kanning is realistic yet optimistic about what the label can do for him today.

“When I go to the elevator, I’m not going to get a premium,” he explains. “They aren’t going to give me 5¢ a bushel more because of the label. It does do a couple of things, though. It will help communicate to the elevator managers that the person who is providing them with grain is someone with integrity, someone with some great core values. It will help build that relationship.”

Kanning is also positive about future possibilities stemming from the label.

“If somebody in the future wants to produce pastas or breads under the Homegrown By Heroes label, I have grains for them,” he says. “If somebody wants to market peas or beans or lentils under that label, I’ve got Homegrown By Heroes pulses for them.”

Critelli hopes the label will differentiate him and help out fellow veterans, but he doesn’t want it to be seen as a handout.

“My soldiers were never looking for a handout,” he says. “They just want a shot. I want people who buy this to think for a second about what it means for society as a whole. I think society needs to do a better job of supporting its veterans.”

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