This story has been corrected.
OJAI, Calif. — An Ojai production crew this week launched a nationwide campaign to help homecoming veterans turn their swords into plowshares.
Producers Dulanie Ellis and Raymond Singer premiered their documentary “Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields” on Thursday at the Museum of Ventura County to a crowd of about 170.
The film details a nationwide movement to match returning veterans in need of a job with farming jobs that need them.
“America needs a million new farmers. Veterans want the job,” says the documentary slogan.
Ellis, Singer and their film crew are referring to a call from United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for a million new farmers to compensate for aging American farmers who are retiring. Especially in Ventura County, said John Krist, chief executive officer of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.
“The average age of the farmer in Ventura County is 60,” Krist said. “We have a lot of multigenerational family farming and this is one of the most expensive places in the world to farm. So if you are a young person, how do you break in? This is a hard place to get started.”
The USDA estimates an 8 percent decrease in the number of farmers in the U.S. from 2008 to 2018. The documentary pointed out that 1 percent of Americans grow the food we eat and half of those Americans are near retirement. Farmland is being lost to development, so farms are getting smaller.
Pair those facts with millions of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in need of jobs and a movement is born.
“Farming is a vital component of this nation and veterans are a vital component of this nation,” said Iraq Army veteran Edgar Hercilla, an Orange County farmer who spoke before the screening. “Farming is not for the faint of heart and neither is military.”
The film profiled veterans across the country — some in California — who have found peace and meaning in what is known as “sustainable” farming. The term is often linked with organic farming, and essentially means farming without harming the soil or the next generation’s ability to farm.
“When you’re working with living things, you become a nurturer, and not a destroyer,” said one veteran in the film.
The farmer-veterans in the documentary spoke of how difficult it was to transition back into civilian life after losing buddies in horrific ways. In many cases, veterans don’t come home to the life they left.
“The transition from warrior to soldier to civilian doesn’t exist,” Hercilla said.
Statistics on a black background marched across the screen during the documentary showing that 25 percent of veterans are unemployed, and every 80 minutes an America veteran attempts suicide.
Ellis said the statistics came from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Hercila enlisted at age 31, and was part of the troop surge in Iraq. He has been out of the military about 18 months.
“When I left, I was a business owner, a homeowner, engaged and expecting a child,” Hercilla said. “I came back a homeless veteran.”
His fiancee suffered a miscarriage, the relationship didn’t survive, and Hercilla saw things he can’t forget.
“We all did some sort of self-medication,” he said. “I bought a sailboat ... I just sailed away, and floated.”
Finally a friend linked him up with an organization founded in 2007 called Archi’s Acres.
The Escondido-based Archi's Acres supports a business called the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training Program founded by Karen and Colin Archipley. Colin is a combat veteran. Since its inception, VSAT/Archi's Acres has trained about 160 veterans in organic farming.
VSAT, which offers classes and workshops, is open to any veteran. Another organization, the not-for-profit Farmer-Veteran Coalition, hooks veterans up with farming networks in all 50 states. Retired farm manager and founder Michael O'Gorman says he's been contacted by about 1,000 veterans.
“The challenge for us is, we don’t get any two that match the same mold,” he said. “They live in any one of the 50 states. There could be a cattleman, a soybean farmer. Even buffalo. We will find you someone if you need funding.”
O’Gorman said his organization plans to strike up a relationship with the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.
Meanwhile, Ellis said she and Singer need help launching this movement across the U.S., so they are looking for donations or people who would like to organize events for the cause of matching veterans with jobs in farming.
“This is a military county, this is an agricultural county,” she said. “Let’s get this going.”
On the Net:
Archi’s Acres and Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT)
The Farmer Veteran Coalition
To arrange a screening of “Ground Operations” or to donate to the cause: www.groundoperations.net