Help for Virginia’s farmer veterans

<div class="source">Tina Cunningham</div><div class="image-desc">Mickey Cunningham plants trees in a quail patch.</div><div class="buy-pic"></div>

Mickey Cunningham plants trees in a quail patch. Photo by Tina Cunningham

Veterans seeking to transition from their life in service to a career in agriculture will have some new resources to help them along the way.

According to a recent announcement, the Virginia chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), a national organization, launched earlier this year alongside West Virginia and New York chapters, and have already begun developing partnerships and establishing a network for their cause.

A notable example of this is their partnership with Homegrown by Heroes. According to a news release, the combined Virginia Grown and Homegrown By Heroes (HBH) logo will inform consumers that products were produced by Virginia’s military veterans and will serve as an extra incentive to consumers when buying local farm products.

According to Col. John Fant of Grayson County, chairman of the FVC’s Virginia chapter, these new efforts are being introduced in the hopes of tackling two national issues: helping veterans transition from life in the military, and boosting interest in agriculture.

The Effort

Fant, a retired U.S. Army veteran with 27 years of experience in service, returned home to his family’s farm, Summerfield Heritage Farm, in Independence in 2013.

Fant explained that a veteran’s skill sets typically match the discipline and practical skills that are needed in agriculture.

“[Veterans] come out of the military having proven themselves through discipline. Some may have physical issues, some mental, but the skill sets that most all of them have some sort of mechanical training to maintain equipment they were on in the military. They understand getting up early and going to bed late. The lifestyle of a veteran is very conducive to the lifestyle of a farmer. That mental attitude and discipline you gain in your service through the military is the type of stuff you need to make a go at it in agriculture,” Fant said.

Continuing, he noted, “[The organization has] recognized that folks who are farming are getting older, and the number of folks moving into farming is not at a volume large enough to replace those that are farming. The coalition recognizes that veterans bring a skill set from their time in service to the nation that is very applicable to feeding the nation. Another way to think about it is, about 1 percent of our population defends the nation; and only about one percent feeds the nation. This effort is to help get veterans who are already used to serving the nation from a defense standpoint; to serve the nation from a food standpoint.”

The chapter in Virginia was designed primarily as a networking resource for veterans in the state who are interested in a career in agriculture. Fant explained, “Veterans in Virginia who want to get into agriculture, and it could be an interest in production agriculture, working with value-added products, or working for a feed store, anywhere in that food chain — no pun intended — the chapter is there to help identify those veterans in Virginia who are transitioning from their service, or who are already in agriculture and need access to resources.

“Through resources, networking and advocating, we are encouraging veterans to do this sort of work,” Fant continued.

When asked what sort of help they provide in terms of resources, Fant referenced land access as an example. Through the chapter’s networking and resources at the national level, the group’s goal is to match potential farmer veterans who don’t have resources (land), with other farmers who are accepting internships, employees or even someone to pass off the business to when they retire.

From planting to harvest, seed to produce and soil to table, the organization wants to ensure that these farmers have every resource available to successfully work and market their products. The HBH logo stands as an example, giving veterans the perfect tool to draw customers to their product.

“Agriculture is a business, just like anything else, You need to stand out,” Fant said.

The organization also hopes, in the future, to provide more of an opportunity for veterans to learn about their options in agriculture, following their service.

“We need to do a better job of educating service members while they are in the service, so when they try to make the decision, this is an option,” Fant said.

Local Snapshots

Grayson County, a historically agricultural area, provides plenty of resources for potential farmers, and could prove to benefit from the state’s recent efforts. Not only does the county boast a large number of local farmers and agriculturally-based businesses, but many of them also bring skillsets from the military as veterans.

Rick Cavy, a U.S. Navy veteran who served from 1983-2002, transitioned to farming from owning a restaurant. While in the Navy, he served as a driver and did underwater ship repairs. He served in Hawaii, San Diego, Seattle and Virginia Beach. He was dive captain in charge of bringing up the historic ship USS Monitor.

His wife, Jen Cavy, is also a Navy veteran, having served from 1984-1988. While in the service, she worked on board several different ships as a plumber/ firefighter, and also did some brazing and welding.

“Basically, we were doing whatever was needed to maintain the ship,” she told the paper.

For a while, Jen was the only female in an 18-man crew. (Later, one more woman was added to the team.) At first, she lived in a “dorm” with 120 women; later, roomed with 20 other women. Of approximately 1,500 servicemen on the USS Samuel Gompers, only 300 were women. So, there was some harassment to be dealt with, both overt and the kind of background attitude that was not unusual back then.

After Cavy left the Navy, she became a chef.

“I always liked to cook; my grandmother had a knife in my hand by the time I was five. She was an amazing, amazing cook, but she only allowed me in the kitchen as her little sous chef, and I knew early on that I wanted to do the whole thing. So, I went to culinary school, the California Culinary Academy. Eventually, I opened my own restaurant near Virginia Beach, where my husband, Rick, was still in service.”

“We were buying local produce from farmers, and we began visiting the farms. Then, we put in some time working on the farm, and we fell in love with it,” Rick told the paper. After selling the restaurant and moving to the area, the couple planted their roots.

Today, they raise vegetables “from A to Z” year-round. They have two “high tunnes,” which are 35-foot raised beds. The couple sells produce to a few restaurants, through the Independence Farmers Market and the food hub, Alleghany Food Initiative.

While work on the farm is year-round, Jen says, there are “slack times in the bleak mid-winter, when there’s not enough sunlight to make leafy greens grow,” she said. “I really like to grow greens, and I really like to grow vegetables that do particularly well here. Everybody here has tomatoes, bell peppers and green beans in their gardens, so I decided to grow chilies and heirloom tomatoes, different-colored carrots, cucumbers that look like miniature watermelons, and lots and lots of greens.”

Jen says the self-sustainability of farming is a far cry from the military, and that she preferred a career where she could make her own rules.

“The cool thing about retiring from the military is that people often do it while they’re relatively young, when their bodies are still in good enough shape to do things that require some strength and mobility – like farming. Plus, military retirement provides a small income that can be a kind of safety net for the risky proposition of farming,” Jen added. “There is a peace that comes with working in the dirt. And people who are getting out of the military often need that special peace, and rejuvenation, that comes with working in the land, especially here in Grayson County. So I know the Farmer Veteran Coalition is a very worthy effort.”

When asked how his experience in the military translates to his new career, Rick said, “I think that in the military you learn to deal with adversity as challenges and as opportunities, and that has played a very important role in how we handle the issues inherent in farming: blight, drought, bug infestation, whatever. Those kinds of things can drive you right over the edge, when you’ve invested so much time and money in that year’s crops. But, thanks to my time in the military, I can step back and look at things a little differently, not just as disasters. And, of course, the discipline of the military life is wonderfully useful in farming; it applies to almost every aspect, from getting up and out to the field every morning, to sticking to a budget.”

Mickey Cunningham, a U.S. Army veteran, served from June 1967-June 1993. He spent 10 years in combat and 16 years as a post official.

Cunningham grew up on a small farm; and in high school, he worked on a beef cattle ranch for two summers in Culpepper and Faquier counties.

His father was a beekeeper, keeping anywhere from two to 10 hives at a time while he was growing up.

“I had kind of missed working on the land while I was in the service, so I started working in landscaping after I retired. But that was concentrated on lawns and gardens, and I wanted to work on larger acreages. I was not ready to completely retire,” Cunningham told the paper.

He and his wife moved to the area to help with his wife’s home farm, which is now coming up on being a Century Farm, he noted.

Cunningham’s master’s degree in vocational/technical education, with a specialization in horticulture, quickly came into play.

“During my military service, I built schoolhouses around the world and I got to establish the landscaping on the grounds for each of these buildings (each building nearly an acre in size.),” he added.

A major influence from his military days, he says, are lessons in tenacity.

“You gotta stick to it, often you have to be up at six o’clock or earlier, and still at it when the sun goes down. Just like in the military, you keep going til the job is done,” he said.

When asked how to succeed in the business, he shared a few pearls of wisdom.

“Every farm should have some aspect of recreational activity built into to the farm life: a walking trail, a fishing stream, hunting, a picnic area, a place of solitude where you can escape and read. Just something that builds relaxation into the daily life,” he said. “You need to be able to realize the results of your effort, and standing back, or sitting down, and resting will enable you to do that. It will keep you from burning out.

“Also, every farm should have two hives of bees, and every farmer should think about the pesticides and herbicides he or she uses, and their effects on our pollinators,” he added.

Other Thoughts

Across the state line, U.S. Navy veteran Jonathan Houser shared similar sentiments to his Virginia neighbors. Houser and his wife, Hannah, raise sheep and chickens, as well as vegetables, out of their farm in Alleghany County, N.C. They are currently looking into humane options for raising meat animals; and they want to use local resources to process their food for the community.

Since Alleghany County neighbors Grayson, business partnerships are common between the two localities.

“I wanted to come home and be quiet, to live simply without the race to acquire things, to pay attention to what’s really important – like seeing my daughters grow up,” Houser said of his choice to become a farmer. “I think that for myself and our family, the number one goal of our agricultural endeavor is to try to create a sustainable, just and accessible system that provides nutritious food to local people. In my mind, there’s no reason a community should have to depend on food produced in some far-off place. I know we can produce real food, right here. I want to be part of that.”

In a recent news release, several representatives weighed in on the impact this effort will make for agriculture in Virginia, as well as nationwide.

“Our military veterans have selflessly served the Commonwealth and our nation, and providing them with a way to differentiate their agricultural products in the marketplace makes good business sense,” said Governor McAuliffe. “As the state with the fastest-growing veteran population in the country, we are determined to also be the most veteran-friendly. By offering these heroes new resources to develop and market their farm businesses, we will ensure economic opportunities for them to support their families and stay in the Commonwealth, while contributing to this $70 billion local industry.”

Speaking about the new partnership, Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Basil Gooden added, “Veterans already have such a diverse skill set and agriculture offers numerous job opportunities.”

“Virginians have a long and proud history of serving in our nation’s military. One of our primary missions at the Virginia Department of Veterans Services is to honor our veterans and help them make a successful transition to civilian life. It is gratifying to see so many of these veterans returning to their rural communities to engage in farming,” said Virginia Department of Veterans Services Commissioner John L. Newby II.

For more information about the FVC and its programs and partnerships, or to join, visit farmvetco.org.