A growing number of veterans are looking to agriculture for their next career and entrepreneurial opportunity.
It’s what brought dozens of veterans and active duty military recently to the parking lot of the Hillsborough County Agricultural Extension Service in Seffner. Shortly after sunrise, they boarded a bus for the Military Farm Tour sponsored by the county’s economic development department and the extension service.
“There’s a lot of misconception about agriculture, that it’s all about plows and cows. But there’s a lot more to it than that,” said Stephen Gran, director of the extension service.
This isn't the first time Hillsborough County has held farm tours for veterans. But this year, Gran is focusing on what he calls careers "beyond the field.”
“There’s a technical aspect that we feel that veterans separating from service could have the opportunity to contribute to that industry,” Gran said. “In addition (to) the entrepreneurial aspect of it, a lot of veterans are looking for that new opportunity and the chance for them to start a new farm.”
The dream farm for Mike Burrell, a retired Air Force major with 28 years of service, will be more than just acreage to grow produce.
“I have a vision. I want to do farming so I can have a restaurant on there and the food from the farm supplying the restaurant,” Burrell said.
He also wants to provide land to “city dwellers” who want to try their hand at farming but have no room.
Burrell is part of a Hillsborough County internship program designed to expose veterans to a life in agriculture. His internship started at an agricultural research center in Wimauma, and he’s now getting experience in the fields with strawberry pickers.
“The people in those fields work a lot. It is tough work. Farming is tough work,” Burrell said.
Both locally and nationally, the agriculture industry is turning to veterans to grow the dwindling farmer population. Census data shows that 57 is the average age of the American farmer.
“There’s a lot of people getting out of farming. People are getting older,” said Joseph Sweat, an assistant vice president with Farm Credit of Central Florida.
His bank does not have a specific veterans' program. However, it does one for first-time farmers. And Sweat sees some similarities between farmers and former military members.
“They both have a mission. They want to succeed. They’ve got that drive to get it done,” he said.
Hillsborough is one of many agricultural communities reaching out to veterans.
When Michael O’Gorman retired after 40 years as an organic farm manager, he started the nonprofit - Farmer Veteran Coalition. He said he was inspired by a study that showed rural Americans accounted for a disproportionate number of service members wounded and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This is something we can do for the veterans when returning home,” O’Gorman said. “There are less services for them when they live in these rural communities. There’s more geographic isolation and that’s an issue for a lot of returning veterans. But there also are opportunities and meaningful careers in agriculture.”
His first year, O’Gorman said he only reached nine veteran farmers. But eight years later, the Farmer Veteran Coalition has almost 9,000 members and hears from more than 50 veterans a week.
Yet he’s the first to caution that farming is not the idealistic, bucolic setting many envision.
“There is loss in farming, there is tremendous risk, and there is a lot of financial stress,” O’Gorman said. “At same time, there’s a power that comes from somebody who has chosen those difficult paths, who refused to be the person in the cubicle, (saying) 'I’ll be the person on the front lines,' whether it’s militarily or growing food.”
The coalition offers veterans education, mentors, internships, grants, and resources like business and financing advice.
And it also manages a Homegrown by Heroes label now being used by 700 veterans to help market their agricultural goods in 16 states, but not Florida.
O'Gorman hopes that it will become a familiar label in supermarkets, nationwide, so shoppers can seek out food farmed by former service members.