Farmers needed: North Carolina turns to veterans to bolster state's industry
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: May 17, 2018
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Agriculture is North Carolina’s largest industry.
But in recent years, thousands of farms across the state have been shuttered as land has been developed or farmers have closed up shop because of shrinking profits.
In response, local, state and federal officials are hoping to enlist reinforcements from North Carolina’s second largest economic driver: the military.
At a Farming Resources for Military Veterans Workshop at the Cumberland County Cooperative Extension Office, experts from across the Cape Fear region shared tips, tools and contacts with farmers and would-be farmers.
The event was hosted by the North Carolina Assistive Technology Program, with support from Cumberland County, N.C. AgriAbility, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others. It drew several working farmers, including one from Charlotte.
Lisa Childers of the county Cooperative Extension Office said she and others are standing by to be a resource to farmers. The county provides a resource guide for local farmers and can provide information on government grants and programs to bolster their business.
“If we can be of assistance, that’s what we’re here for,” she said.
Tobacco, sweet potatoes, Christmas trees, poultry and pork are all big business in North Carolina, Childers said. And farmers have a big impact, even near Fayetteville and other cities that aren’t often associated with farmland.
Cumberland County has about 186 farmers, she said, about 83 percent of which run small family farms.
The average age of those farmers is approaching 60 years-old, Childers said, which was all the more reason to encourage a younger generation of veterans to fill in a widening gap.
Childers said a new generation of farmers is embracing new technologies to increase efficiencies and create bigger yields.
Several officials said veterans are often a perfect fit for agriculture.
Rodney Young, a spokesman for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, said veterans often have the skills needed to be successful on a farm.
“Why veterans?" he said. “This is a very easy question. We need highly skilled, driven folks.”
Young said several traits translate from the military to farming, including leadership, discipline and a focus on high standards.
Betty Rodriguez of N.C. AgriAbility agreed. She said veterans have what it takes to be successful in any industry.
N.C. AgriAbility partners with nonprofit organizations to provide resources for farmers with disabilities, including veterans, Rodriguez said.
The organization has helped veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury, amputations and Post-Traumatic Stress overcome their injuries. And she said many have found the work therapeutic.
“For many veteran farmers, farming is their next mission,” she said. “It’s meaningful work.”
Agriculture contributes $78 billion dollars to the North Carolina economy each year, while the defense industry contributes $66 billion.
And in Cumberland County, the two often meet, said the county Cooperative Extension’s Liz Lahti.
Lahti said civil affairs soldiers from Fort Bragg often train at local farms ahead of deployments.
Civil affairs soldiers work with foreign governments and populations in an attempt to improve communities and build defense. And often, the communities they help rely on farming.
She helps host a two-week training course that is conducted three times a year for those soldiers, who learn how to work with local farmers.
Often times, the soldiers have no experience with farming themselves, but get a hands-on class before going overseas.
“It’s one of my favorite things we get to do,” Lahti said.
For more information, contact the North Carolina Assistive Technology Program at 919-855-3500 or the Cumberland County Cooperative Extension Office at 910-321-6860.
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at email@example.com