Thursday, July 8, 2010

Farms, Not Arms

Thanks to Thomas Heikkala for sending along this article about a recent career fair held in Los Angeles by the Farmer Veteran Coalition.

Transitioning from Fighting to Farming

by Rebecca Kheel, Santa Monica Daily Press, July 1, 2010

DOWNTOWN — Phil Northcutt's path to agricultural work was a self-described "wild story" and "spiritual journey."

Northcutt joined the U.S. Marine Corps after finding work in the music industry unsatisfying. He came back from Iraq a few years ago injured and in pain and became addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. He then got a doctor's recommendation to take medical marijuana for his pain. But aside from using the medical marijuana, he began growing and running a co-op himself. For his marijuana activities, he found himself spending a year in jail.

Though growing marijuana got Northcutt in trouble, it ultimately led him to his real passion: agriculture.. Northcutt is now studying organic farming at Santa Rosa Junior College and works at a horse stable at the college's Shone Farm. His dream is to own a 4,000-acre sustainable ranch where he can train other veterans in agriculture and farming.

"I realized working with plants I got a level of satisfaction that I couldn't get doing other things," he said.

As a sign of his support for veterans going into the agricultural industry, Northcutt attended a career fair Wednesday at the Santa Monica Civic Center hosted by the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), a nonprofit organization that connects veteran farmers and helps veterans seeking employment in the farming industry.

"There's [a lot of these] organizations, 'Veterans this' and 'Veterans that,' and they're not all really helping us. A lot of them are just out there advertising and taking money," Northcutt said. "But what Michael [O'Gorman, the executive director and founder of FVC,] is doing here is really one of these organizations where he's got a good group of people out here doing their stuff, and they're doing real [stuff] to help veterans. They're really taking a personal interest."

Approximately 100 veterans and 75 exhibitors gathered at the Civic Center for FVC's second career fair, the first in Santa Monica. Tables from farms and agricultural businesses run by veterans, as well as organizations that support veterans, were set up throughout the auditorium for attendees to learn about and express interest in volunteer or career opportunities.

After getting the FVC fully up and running in February, 2009, O'Gorman said he would get calls from individual veterans looking for work on a farm in July, August or September, times farmers do not need farmhands. Instead of fielding one veteran's request at a time, O'Gorman decided to hold a career fair in Santa Rosa in March, the beginning of the farming season, to help more veterans at once and educate them on farming needs and practices.

"These guys aren't your normal farmers. They're going to be the leaders in the next generation of farming," O'Gorman said of a group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans standing behind him during an introductory speech Wednesday. "They're proactive, they're ingenious, they're creative, they got hardcore stamina."

Bringing the fair to Los Angeles, an area not typically recognized for its agriculture, presented difficulties in finding groups to participate, O'Gorman said. So the FVC expanded the fair to include all stages of food production, such as produce distribution and retail.

The unemployment rate for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars ages 18 to 24 is approximately 30 percent, or 250,000 people, according to the FVC. Farming provides a growing and necessary field for veterans to find employment in, one that will also help curb the rate and effects of post traumatic stress disorder, said Shad Meshad, the founder and president of the National Veterans Foundation, who attended the fair.

"It's like a domino effect," Meshad said. "People go, 'What do jobs have to do with PTSD?' Well, it could play a part, particularly if you have readjustment issues, and you can't find a job, and you have a wife, and you have a child, and you have a house to pay for. I don't know of any other way you can solve that. We have to have jobs."

Aside from helping veterans find careers, the fair provided an opportunity for veterans already in agriculture to build a community and learn from each other, said Jason Rich, a Navy veteran who works with Hungry Mother Organics, an organic produce company in Carson City, Nev. At the fair, Rich met Colin Archipley, a Marine Corps veteran who founded Veteran's Sustainable Agriculture Training, and learned about his use of bio-hydroponics as a sustainable farming practice, which he said he will try to use in his work now.

Tom Schoettler came to the career fair as a veteran friend of Northcutt's. He grew up on a farm, and although he did not originally want to work on his family's farm, he said he now hopes to take over the operation one day. In the meantime, Schoettler wants to learn about other opportunities in agriculture.

"There should be a thousand more of these everywhere around here," he said. "It's good for me to know there's other people out there that are in the same position I'm in and that are looking to do the same things that I'm interested in."
photo by Susanna Frohman, from the Farmer Veteran Coalition site

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