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Jim Welder of Greenville-based Trinity Farms Jim Welder of Greenville-based Trinity Farms PHOTO: Ramonna Okkema

West Michigan veterans find solace, opportunity in agriculture

BY Friday, November 11, 2016 10:38am

After several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jed Welder knew that he needed a change.

The 14-year military veteran grew up on a family farm but left at a young age for a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps before later transitioning into the U.S. Army. As his military career came to an end, Welder yearned for the freedom, challenge and accomplishment that comes through farming.

“I wanted to see things grow,” Welder said. “We saw a lot of destruction and unfortunate things while we were overseas, and farming attracted me because of being able to watch something from start to finish. You put the crop in the ground, you watch it grow and you see your efforts rewarded. Hopefully, then you harvest the crop.”

In 2013, Welder established Greenville-based Trinity Farms, after pursuing the career part-time since 2008 when he left the Army. Since then, the farm has grown to approximately 900 acres where Welder harvests a combination of corn, soybeans and hops.

Going forward, Welder hopes to take advantage of Zeeland Farm Services Inc.’s new $130 million soybean processing facility in Ithaca, which will cut in half the distance Trinity Farms travels to deliver its crops.

Welder is hardly alone among veterans in his attraction to farming. In the years following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans returning from tours have rallied around agriculture, at a time when many struggled to integrate back into the civilian workforce.

“We’re on the front lines and the number of veterans that keep coming into the industry are increasing,” said Michael O’Gorman, executive director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a California-based industry group that helps support veteran farmers.

In part, veterans are called to farming because it offers them a renewed sense of purpose after leaving a highly “mission-focused” job in the military, O’Gorman said.

“With that sense of strong mission, these young men and women decided to put their lives on the line and defend their country. A lot of what we see gets mixed up with PTSD and trauma of war but is also a lack of having a fulfilling sense of purpose that one had previously,” he said. “I think that farming is unique in that it has that (sense of purpose).”

O’Gorman believes that the growing ranks of veteran farmers can be attributed to a combination of increased interest in the sector and heightened awareness about the variety of programs and grants available to beginning farmers who served in the military.

The Farmer Veteran Coalition has grown to 8,000 members since 2008, with half of its membership having grown up around farms in rural America. Roughly 25 percent of the organization’s members are heirs to family farms, with the remaining 25 percent comprised of veterans who have no experience in agriculture.

Taken as a whole, O’Gorman estimates that there are roughly 20,000 veterans farming in the U.S. currently.


RESOURCES AVAILABLE

The Farmer Veteran Coalition provides veteran farmers with grants and other programs to help them grow and sell their products.

The organization operates two main programs, its Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund and Homegrown by Heroes labeling program.

Since 2010, the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund has issued roughly $1.2 million for purchases on behalf of farmers, ranging from new fences to livestock, O’Gorman said. The Homegrown by Heroes program allows veteran farmers to include a label on their products denoting that it was produced by veterans. The label also is available for ranchers, fisherman and other producers.

Beyond the Farmer Veteran Coalition, several federal programs exist to support veteran farmers, including grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency and National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Welder of Trinity Farms recently used a cost-sharing program through the NRCS to purchase a diesel fueling station for the farm’s heavy equipment. The NRCS offers the same cost-sharing program to non-veteran farmers, but veterans receive more funding.


A PREFERRED LIFESTYLE

In many cases, veterans feel called to a career in agriculture because it fits with the lifestyle they want to live after leaving the military.

For Les Meyette, owner of Montague-based Grand Alpaca Co. LLC, farming offered a balance between spending time outdoors and with his family.

A National Guard veteran who served one tour in Iraq as a combat engineer, Meyette began raising alpacas in earnest in 2013 after working at a local manufacturer in both production and management positions.

“I’ve already proved to myself I can work in an office or manufacturing facility and make money, but right now my focus is on my family,” Meyette said. “If I make a lot of money doing this, that’s great. If I make enough just to get by but I get to spend the next 10 years molding my kids and being part of their lives, (then) that’s worth far more money than I’m going to make working in a cubicle or inside some cement box where I don’t see the sun all day.”

Moreover, being outside gives veterans a time to process the complex emotions they can have from their time in active duty.

“I’ve seen a lot of instances where you have people with PTSD that struggle with things over there, and farming gives you time to reflect and process all that,” Meyette said.

Grand Alpaca Co. currently maintains a herd of 120 alpacas, which the company shears before selling the fleece to a co-op. In the near future, Meyette plans to invest in a small processing operation at his facility so he can handle the fleece on site, he said.

With all the positive attributes that farming brings to veterans, their training and experience also positions them to thrive in the industry, which can often be fraught with hardships, sources said.

“The long hours you spend on a deployment or on a training exercise translate directly toward the hours we work during spring and fall for planting and harvest,” said Welder of Trinity Farms. “You work from the time you can see to the time you can’t see and if you have good LED lights on the equipment, you just keep right on going. That mission-first focus that you develop in the military really translates toward accomplishing what needs to be done on the farm and pushing out those distractions that may get in the way when you have to get that mission accomplished.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story referred to Jed Welder as "Jim Welder." 

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