Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Are American veterans a natural fit to be the new American farmers?

As often noted by rural sociologists, depictions of the rural often include allusions to farming. Farming, in turn, is often characterized by both backbreaking labor and pastoral serenity. A recent interest among wealthy Americans in urban farming, Community-Supported Agriculture, organic produce, and the like can be seen throughout the United States. Just this week the Obama administration released new dietary guidelines advocating such things. In addition to the upper class's interest in farming, new programs to draw former Marines and Army reservists back to the land are popping up all across the United States in an effort to transition returning veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into civilian life.

These programs seem to have a two-fold purpose: first, they seek to fill a growing need in the nation's agricultural sector, and second, they hope to provide veterans with stable careers upon their re-entry. As an attempt to woo veterans, these programs are drawing on deeply-held beliefs about agriculture and rurality. Moreover, they are also analogizing life in the military to life on the farm.

Such programs focus on the fact that the farming population is aging out. The Agriculture Department estimates that 50% of today's farming population will retire in the next ten years. As Michael O'Gorman of the nonprofit Farmer-Veteran Coalition points out, "there are eight times as many farmers over age 65 as under." And since 45 percent of the military comes from rural communities (according to the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire), these programs ask, who better to fill these jobs than returning vets who are most likely from rural areas (read: farms) and who have already demonstrated both a sense of duty and an ability to do the jobs no one else wants? Of course, we know that "rural" doesn't equal "agriculture," nonetheless people like the dean of the University of Nebraska's College of Technical Agriculture believe that "rural vets have this wonderful knowledge base about agriculture."

It is also about more than knowledge, it's about a willingness to sacrifice for one's country. Colin Archipley, a decorated Marine who served three tours in Iraq and now runs a "boot camp" at his farm through Camp Pendleton's transition assistance program in Southern California, likens farmers to soldiers because both "are the guys who get dirty, do the work, and are generally underappreciated." A staff member of the transition assistance program believes that veterans are uniquely suited for farm work because other young people haven't "had as much responsibility [whereas veterans] have been tasked with making life-and-death decisions."

Likewise, a new program for veterans at the University of Nebraska's College of Technical Agriculture, dubbed "Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots," operates on the premise that veterans will commit to the lifestyle, whereas "young people with college degrees and trust funds [. . .] won't be farming five years from now [even though] farming has become the cause du jour." O'Gorman agrees: "the military is not for the faint of heart, and farming isn't either." Such statements advocate the notion that veterans have a stronger sense of duty than non-veterans and that the country should continue to exploit that sense of duty to fill vacancies in farm jobs.

Are we really telling veterans "hey, no one else wants these jobs so you should take them"? Probably not. Instead, these programs are not only marketing the fact that soldier skills are transferable to farming, but that farming is uniquely therapeutic for former soldiers. One veteran believes that being outside has provided a source of "comfort" and that agriculture, unlike the military, "allows you to become a creator rather than a destroyer." Another soldier-turned-farmer in Central Florida argues the farm more naturally integrates physical therapy and cognitive therapy: "squeezing a ball gets monotonous and you don't get the mist from the sprinklers or a cool breeze" in a psychologist's or physical therapist's office. A former sergeant now running a Community-Supported Agriculture Farm in Northern California pointed out that the military teaches one how to face death, but in farming "there is life all around."

Whether these veterans stick with farming as a profession or instead use the programs as a stepping stone to other non-agricultural pursuits remains to be seen. What is clear is that the country's interest in returning to its agricultural roots seems to cut across class lines.


Chez Marta said...

Your post hints at an important point in critical theory: that we all tend to make assumptions based on other's race, or gender, or former profession, and that society operates on a foundation laid by essentialism. But what a markedly essentialist thinking it is to wed the idea of farming to military service and vice versa. In our country, military service is largely shouldered by the working class: farmers and factory workers, and their sons and daughters. No wonder that most soldiers come from a farming background: it is a ticket out of farming forever, and into a nice college, and towards the middle class. The military and it's company, i.e., the GI Bills are a vehicle in leveling the playing field and providing the working class with a chance at upward mobility. Telling vets that their country needs them now on the farm, because trust fund babies will not go for longterm planning seems to be a smart move to maintain the status quo.

Jon di Cristina said...

I like any idea that tries to give opportunities to vets, especially vets who faced combat. (The most dangerous part about my time in the Air Force was my commute in San Antonio.) What occurred to me about the hypothetical transition from military to farm was not so much the dichotomy between violence/destruction on the one hand and peace/growth on the other, but rather the move toward independent dignity. In the military, you become very aware very quickly that you are a replaceable cog in a vast and impersonal machine. There are positive aspects to that, like the feeling that you're part of something more important than yourself, but the intense apathy a huge bureaucracy can express toward the individual also wears on the soul. To the extent that vets can tap into the rural stereotype of individual connection to place and community, I'm all for it.