Programs will help veterans pursuing ag careers

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By Leslie Moore

Veterans pursuing careers in agriculture might benefit from two programs launched earlier this year by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer said Kentucky Proud Homegrown by Heroes and Jobs for Vets are aimed at paying back the men and women who served in the military.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week that the unemployment rate of post 9/11 veterans saw some improvement last year, but still hovers at about 9.9 percent.

"Several months ago, Gen. [Edward] Tonini and I were talking about the unemployment rate among our military veterans," Comer said. "It's ridiculous. Veterans from all branches of the military are having a terrible time finding employment."

Comer said he began thinking of ways farming could be an opportunity for veterans struggling to find work.

"I thought we could expand the Kentucky Proud program to have a special initiative for veterans," Comer said. "I believe consumers in Kentucky would support our veteran farmers."

Comer said the Homegrown by Heroes logo was designed so farmers participating in the program could use it on their signage and as stickers on products, making them easily distinguishable to consumers.

According to Comer, Kentucky Proud Jobs for Vets has two primary goals - to match farmers needing quality labor with veterans needing immediate employment and to provide veterans a way into a career in Kentucky agriculture.

"We're working with the military to have a database for employers who are looking to hire military veterans," Comer said. "We are getting more and more military veterans working, and hopefully that will help with some economic development opportunities around the states."

Mike Lewis, outreach coordinator for the Growing Warriors Project, served in the 3rd United States Infantry in Washington D.C. from 1991 to 1996. He began farming about seven years ago and is now president of the Berea Farmers Market.

But it wasn't until his brother suffered a career-ending injury while deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 that Lewis said he truly realized the benefits agriculture offers to returning veterans, not only in terms of employment but also as a form of therapy.

Soon after, the Growing Warriors Project was born. The project's website states that its mission is to train, assist and equip veteran families with the skills, tools and supplies needed to grow high quality naturally grown produce for their families and communities.

"This whole thing has been an eye opener," Lewis said of the success the Growing Warriors Project has already seen. Since the project began last year, Lewis has received 18 applications from veterans wanting to get involved.

Lewis said Homegrown by Heroes and Jobs for Vets will help his organization follow through with its mission.

"We're dealing with people that have served their nation, sometimes 14 or 15 years," Lewis said. "You can't turn off that switch that says you're a servant to your country. That need is still there."

On his farm that he manages with his wife, Lewis raises heritage hogs, free-range poultry and a variety of vegetables. They also make relishes, jams, jellies and breads.

Lewis said he has already ordered the Homegrown by Heroes stickers and is looking forward to using them to market his products.

Comer said the Department of Agriculture buys the stickers and signs in large quantities and then sells them to farmers signed up for the program at cost.

"The Kentucky Proud Program is a free business. We get our funding exclusively from the tobacco settlement," Comer said. "You can buy hundreds of the stickers for pennies."

According to Ben Shaffar, director of business development for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture Office of Marketing, 24 people have signed up so far.

Though no one from Taylor County has applied yet, Taylor County Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources Pat Hardesty said he has seen the success of local Kentucky Proud farmers.

Hardesty said he hopes that eligible Taylor County veterans and farmers who are eligible will sign up for the programs.

"Vets that are looking for jobs in agriculture can apply through the Department of Agriculture," Hardesty said. "It may open up the door to farming themselves later or on, or if they're just needing a job with income."

Comer said Kentucky is going to be a model for other states because he has already received calls from about 20 other states wanting to start similar programs.

"They're all looking at this as the bigger picture," Lewis said. "It's going to shine a light on these veterans that still want to continue serving."

Military veteran farmers interested in participating in Homegrown by Heroes can call Ben Shaffar at (502) 564-4983 or email ben.shaffar@ky.gov.

To sign up for Kentucky Proud Jobs for Vets, call the Kentucky Department of Agriculture at (502) 564-4696.

More information about both programs is available at www.kyproud.gov/vets.