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Veterans often reintegrate to rural and agricultural settings

Mike Rosmann

Military veterans often choose to live in rural areas and pursue agricultural careers after they retire from military duty, and the trend is advancing.

A disproportionately high percentage of military enlistees originate from rural backgrounds — about 44 percent — even though the federal government says about 17 percent of all Americans reside in areas defined as rural by the Office of Management and Budget. When soldiers retire from the military, they often want to live in rural locations, and many wish to pursue agricultural careers.

The Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Rural Health says 5.3 million of the 22 million veterans nationwide in 2015 (24 percent) identified themselves as "rural." In a June 2016 article, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that about a 250,000 rural veterans farm, and many more have an interest in agriculture but don't know how to get started.

Why do veterans want to become involved in agriculture? Many people leaving the military originate from rural areas and want to return to their roots. They hope to reintegrate with their communities, and that may include farming.

A 2015 unpublished study of rural veterans who undertook agricultural occupations reports improvements in their physical and mental health, sleep patterns, nutrition, exercise and decreases in pain, anxiety, depression, medication use and substance use. The study used self-report and objective measures of physical and behavioral health.

This is the first study I know of that examined oft-cited benefits by many veterans who say they feel safer in the outdoors, where they can experience solitude and closeness to nature.

Veterans with post-traumatic stress whom I have counseled have told me they crave solace and healing from farming and outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing and rock-climbing.

These same veterans have told me they feel they are continuing to serve others when outside the military by producing crops and livestock, vegetables, fruit, dairy or eggs for others to consume. They like the feeling of taking care of others.

Who are the U.S. veterans? For an indication of their past service, let's take a look at who serves currently in any branch of the U.S. military. They are as follows: Army active duty (21.7 percent), Army National Guard (14.3 percent), Army Reserve (11.7 percent), Navy active duty (12.5 percent), Navy Reserve (4.3 percent), Marine Corps active duty (7.9 percent), Marine Corps Reserve (4.1 percent), Air Force active duty (13.1 percent), Air National Guard (4.2 percent), Air Force Reserve (4.1 percent), Coast Guard active duty (1.7 percent), and Coast Guard Reserve (0.4 percent).

The ethnic background of America's soldiers in 2014 included the following: 69.7 percent white people (includes persons of Hispanic background), 16.8 percent black or African American persons, 3.7 percent Asian persons, 1.5 percent American Indians or Alaska Natives, 1 percent Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders, 2.8 percent persons of multi-racial heritage, and the remainder (4.5 percent) are unknown.

Currently, 70 percent of military personnel are white (including persons with Hispanic background), whereas white people comprise 78 percent of the total U.S. population. Enlisted people who are Hispanic constitute a slightly greater percentage (about 12 percent) than in the general U.S. population when those who lack legally determined status are not included.

Whites overall are under-represented in the U.S. military. Current service recruits are poorer than average, but almost as well educated as comparably aged Americans in general.

Are sufficient resources available to veterans who want to farm? It appears that many veterans who wish to farm have difficulty establishing themselves in agriculture.

The quarter-million veterans engaged in agriculture comprise 6 percent of rural veterans and only 0.8 percent of all veterans. In comparison, 14 percent of all rural people are engaged in agriculture, which is about 2.5 percent of all Americans.

The biggest challenges to veterans entering agriculture have been acquiring the necessary land and capital needed to purchase equipment, livestock, and facilities and to obtain advice. This circumstance is changing, thanks to concerted efforts of the USDA, several organic and sustainable farming organizations, and the Farmer Veteran Coalition.

The 2014 Farm Bill expanded benefits for military veterans. These benefits include preferences given to veterans for loans and farm transition incentives when they participate in USDA conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, and other wildlife habitat and wetlands preservation programs.

Veterans should check with the Farm Service Agency in the county where they reside or plan to farm concerning federal assistance to undertake farming. For farming advice and to learn about community agricultural initiatives, they may consult such organizations as Practical Farmers of Iowa or similar organizations in the state or region where they reside.

The Farmer Veteran Coalition (www.farmvetco.org) is particularly well suited to veterans who wish to farm. They have a growing number of state chapters. The organization is hosting its 2016 Stakeholders Conference at Michigan State University in East Lansing from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2. Veterans are encouraged to apply for $150 registration scholarships.

Please remember current and past soldiers this Veterans Day on Friday, Nov. 11, and always.

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann, visit www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

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