Military veterans are exactly the sort of people who should get involved in agriculture, according to Erin Kimbrough, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service military program manager.
“When you think about it, vets are ideally suited to be farmers, ranchers and other agriculturists,” Kimbrough said. “Their military training and experience taught them hard work, discipline, resourcefulness and how to deal with and overcome adversity. All these are key to working in agriculture.”
She also noted that about half of all those currently in the all-volunteer military are from rural communities, many with some previous experience with agriculture.
“Battleground to Breaking Ground was developed through AgriLife Extension’s Texas AgrAbility program as a way to help military veterans get involved in agricultural enterprises and to provide them with the tools they need to succeed,” she said. “And Texas AgrAbility projects provide services to vets and other individuals with disabilities, chronic health conditions and functional limitations to start or stay engaged in production agriculture.”
Applying military lessons to agriculture
Damon Cleaton, an Army veteran with 22 years military experience and owner of Cleaton’s 4E Farms in Kemper, said he has applied many of the lessons he learned in the military to his agricultural operation.
“Apart from discipline and hard work, one of the main lessons from my military service was learning to overcome challenges and think outside the box to find solutions,” he said. “Military service also gives you that never-quit mentality that’s necessary for dealing with adversity.”
An example of his ability to meet challenges was when during the COVID-19 pandemic he pivoted from primarily growing seasonal vegetables to opening a nursery where he sells vegetable plants, ornamentals and specialized green industry supplies for home and commercial use.
“I have a master’s degree in health care administration with a sub-specialty in logistics,” Cleaton said. “When you’re in the military, you get some experience in locating supplies, ordering them, knowing how much you need and budgeting for them. These are all practical and useful skills for running an agricultural business.”
Chantanel “Kiki” Hendricks, a Navy veteran who served four years active duty, said her position as a trainer of other military personnel and her experiences of meeting challenges and setting and completing goals were all useful in her decision to go into agriculture.
“My military experience also taught me how to focus on specific goals and know how to go about reaching those goals,” she said.
Hendricks has gotten the necessary financing for a farm and is in the process of looking for land in East Texas to suit her purposes.
“My goal is to raise sheep and have a vegetable and plant nursery as well as a small orchard,” she said. “I’d also like to raise some chickens and a maybe a few cattle. My grandfather was also in the military and had a farm in East Texas. And even though he sold it, I feel I can do that type of work.”
She also said she feels having a ranch and growing food for her family and others is another way to serve, honor and protect the country in that it will help create jobs, address the issue of food insecurity and be of benefit to the economy.
AgriLife Extension, other programs helping veterans in agriculture
Cleaton credited both AgriLife Extension’s Battleground to Breaking Ground and Texas AgrAbility programs with providing him with much of the information, training and assistance needed to start and operate his agricultural enterprise.
“I was part of the Battleground to Breaking Ground Cohort No. 4, which began in 2017,” he said. “That program was especially helpful for my putting together a business plan and for me to assess all the pros and cons of getting into an agricultural business. It also allowed me to meet and network with other veterans and share my experiences with them. This ability to connect with other people has made me more outgoing, which has helped me with my PTSD.”
Cleaton said the Texas AgrAbility program helped him find solutions for overcoming some additional challenges.
“During my military service, I injured my back and neck, so I have limited mobility,” he said. “Through the Texas AgrAbility program and Texas Workforce Commission I found out about Texas Vocational Rehabilitation.”
He said workforce commission and AgrAbility specialists came to his farm to conduct a work assessment to find out if there were any changes in methods or equipment that might help him more easily run his operation.
“They provided me with a new back-supporting tractor seat and put front- and rear-facing cameras on my tractor so I don’t have to use my neck as much,” he said. “They also provided me with a new piece of equipment for laying down ridge-furrow plastic mulching, so I don’t have to do that by hand anymore. That took a lot of stress off my neck and back.”
He noted the Farmer Veteran Coalition also helped him get his operation started and has provided him with ongoing support.
Hendricks, who participated in Battleground to Breaking Ground Cohort No. 6, said the camaraderie provided by the cohort form of instruction gave her the ability to reach out to other veterans and benefit from their agriculture experience.
“In the program we all worked as a group and networked about how we could be successful in whatever agricultural endeavor we chose,” she said. “We were able to give one another a leg up or at least a heads-up on what to expect.”
Hendricks said the Battleground to Breaking Ground program’s hands-on training also helped her learn new skills and overcome her concerns about working with large animals.
“Before I got into the program, I had never even used a table saw,” she said. “But with some help I’ve learned how to build a sheep feeder to put inside a sheep pen. I’ve also learned other practical skills that require I use my hands more — and that make me more self-sufficient.”
Hendricks said until she received the program’s hands-on training she had “no interest in having or raising any animal larger than a dog.”
“But during the hands-on training, I learned how to shear a sheep and how to give cattle their vaccinations,” she said. “It eliminated my fear of working with large animals and gave me more confidence in my ability to succeed in agriculture. Now I’m ready to get dirty.”
Components of the Battleground to Breaking Ground program
The first phase in the Battleground to Breaking Ground program is a day-long agriculture workshop covering business planning, rural business ideas, farming/ranching with a disability and funding sources for agricultural businesses. Phase 2 involves 16 weeks of online business planning courses, individual education planning, educational webinars, and instruction on funding and business set-up. Phase 3 involves eight months of online courses and 100 hours of hands-on learning through mentorship and custom-tailored learning opportunities.
“There are also hands-on opportunities for learning farming and ranching skills, monthly video assignments, VetAdvisor coaching calls and education planning calls,” Kimbrough said. “And there is information and discussion relating to socially disadvantaged and limited-resource farmers and ranchers, as well as those with a disability or chronic health condition.”
She said program participation is helpful for developing a business plan for operational management, gaining insights into funding opportunities, improving marketing and financial skills, and enhancing production skills.
“Completing the program helps participants meet the eligibility requirements for U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency low-interest farm loans,” Kimbrough said. “It also provides access to networks connecting marketing, financial and operational channels, as well as information on loans and grants for veterans and other agricultural producers.”
Applications are being accepted now through Nov. 20 for tuition waiver and a link to pay tuition for the Battleground to Breaking Ground Program Cohort No. 9 for military veterans to be held next spring. Go to the AgriLife Today website for more information about this program.