Veteran-oriented program helps current, former military find new roots

‘Battleground to Breaking Ground’ efforts reach service members, others statewide

SAN ANTONIO – While “Military City USA” was an appropriate location to hold the most recent Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service program benefiting current and former military personnel, it was only one of dozens of locations statewide to host this program, coordinators said.

Held at the Texas A&M University campus in San Antonio, “Battleground to Breaking Ground: A Transformational Journey” was attended by 30 people, the majority of who were military veterans.

Since 2012, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and other agencies and organizations have presented Battleground to Breaking Ground programs throughout Texas, reaching more than 400 current and former military and others. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Battleground to Breaking Ground programs have been held throughout Texas, reaching more than 400 people, most of them current and former military. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

“Veterans and active duty military, small acreage farmers and ranchers, and beginning producers are encouraged to attend these free agriculture business workshops,” said Erin Pilosi-Kimbrough, AgriLife Extension program coordinator for the workshops. “Those attending learn about everything from agriculture business start-up to identifying sources for funding.”

Pilosi-Kimbrough said program sessions include presentations on agricultural business opportunities, business planning, marketing and resource networking.

“The workshops, which are part of the Texas AgrAbility Project of AgriLife Extension, also address the possibilities for military veterans with disabilities to engage in ranching or farming,” said Dr. Cheryl Grenwelge, a specialist in disability transition with AgriLife Extension. “Texas AgrAbility’s focus is on connecting, assisting and empowering agricultural producers, their family members and employees with disabilities and chronic health conditions to stay engaged in production agriculture.”

Another aspect of Texas AgrAbility is helping current and former military and others with disabilities adapt work and equipment so they can effectively continue their commercial farming endeavors.(Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Another aspect of Texas AgrAbility is helping current and former military and others with disabilities adapt work and equipment so they can effectively continue their commercial farming endeavors.(Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Grenwelge, whose doctorate is in educational psychology, provides day-to-day supervision and implementation of educational instruction and case management for Texas AgrAbility.

“I grew up on ranches in multiple states, so I have a personal background in production agriculture and a professional background in working with people who have disabilities,” Grenwelge said. “This gives me a unique insight and understanding of what individuals who are in production agriculture and also dealing with a disability may require.”

She noted that it is not only of social interest, but also economic interest to keep as many people as possible involved in production agriculture.

Grenwelge said about 45 percent of returning veterans are from rural areas and these AgriLife Extension programs are designed “to enable veterans with or without disabilities to return to their rural areas with the opportunity of creating self-employment to support themselves and their families.”

The Battleground to Breaking Ground workshops have been designed with input from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s  Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Farmer Veteran Coalition, Farm Service Agency and Texas Department of Agriculture. Representatives of these agencies are available at the workshops to share information and resource material.

“We began initial workshop design and coordination with the NRCS in 2011, then other   agencies and groups became involved,” Grenwelge said. “We started to offer the workshops the following year.”

Pilosi-Kimbrough said to date, AgriLife Extension has presented 17 of these programs throughout the state.

“At these programs, we also have former military personnel who are now successful agricultural producers give presentations to share their experiences about starting or managing an agriculture or agribusiness operation and to answer any questions they may have,” PilosiKimbrough said.

A variety of agencies and organizations involved in helping current and former  military provide information and materials at the programs. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Paul Schattenberg)

A variety of agencies and organizations involved in helping current and former military provide information and materials at the programs. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Paul Schattenberg)

She said last year’s workshops included programs in geographically diverse areas of the state, such as Dallas, McAllen, El Paso and Bullard.

“Of the 409 people who have attended these workshops over the past three years, about 70 percent were active duty or retired military,” she said. “We also have a Facebook page for participants with over 300 members.”

To view this Facebook page, go to  https://www.facebook.com/groups/plansmallfarms/.

One military veteran who has not only benefitted from the Battleground to Breaking Ground program but now serves as a regular program presenter is Doug Havemann, a former Army and Army National Guard member who spoke at the San Antonio program. Havemann and wife Melissa operate Mesquite Field Farm, which he describes as “a small off-grid farm located southeast of San Antonio.” He learned about the program a few years ago while attending a farm and ranch show on the San Antonio Livestock Exposition grounds.

“We produce rotationally grazed grass-fed beef on about 20 acres in Nixon,” said Havemann.  “After ensuring we had adequate grass for our cattle, we began operations in earnest in 2013.”

Havemann said the information he received on business planning was the most useful for him.

“My wife and I have both been involved in business and have worked for corporations, but had never written a business plan,” he said. “Our biggest problem was finding information through companies and agencies. But through the program, I was able to find out about a variety of useful resources, all in one place.”

James Jeffers, an urban farmer co-owner of Eat the Yard in Oak Cliff, as well as president of a new nonprofit called Farmers Assisting Returning Military, or FARM, said the workshop also helped him.

Jeffers, an Army veteran who served from 2000 to 2009, suffered a traumatic brain injury and was medically retired.

Currently Jeffers is focusing his efforts on the FARM initiative, which he said is an effort to help injured veterans by providing “therapeutic” opportunities through agriculture.

“We have just expanded our agricultural efforts to a 17-acre farm near De Soto,” he said. “We’re currently selling the produce from our Eat the Yard efforts in Oak Cliff and are restoring our composting activities there. In the meantime, we’ve been taking care of FARM business.”

Jeffers said printed materials he picked up at the workshop he attended provided him contacts and resources that have helped in developing the new property.

“Just recently, some people from NRCS came out and helped with site planning and layout, erosion prevention and crop selection,” he said

“I’m glad our military vets and others are benefitting from these programs,” said Pilosi-Kimbrough. “At the end of each program, we do a survey asking participants if they feel they can apply the knowledge they gained in the workshop to their own needs. So far, 95 percent of participants indicated they expected to benefit economically as a direct result of what they learned at the workshop.”

Havemann said that sharing his business experiences with other current and former military at the workshops is basically an extension of military commitment and esprit de corps.

“Soldiers always take care of other soldiers, and through this programming and networking with other military personnel, we can help each other and find additional opportunities to share knowledge, and possibly even equipment and operational costs,” he said. “I’m delighted there is finally a program to help current and former military can get involved in production agriculture.”

For more information about AgriLife Extension agriculture programs for the military, contact Pilosi-Kimbrough at 979-847-6185 or empilosi@ag.tamu.edu.

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