By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — For those serving in the military and returning from oversees duty, finding employment in a tough job market can be difficult, at best. While the state’s overall unemployment rate, which stands at around 8 percent, has seen improvements, that rate for military personnel is much higher.
In an effort to combat the situation, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) is teaming with other organizations to help veterans get into farming or, for those who are already producers, use the Kentucky Proud marketing program to get their value-added goods to bigger and newer markets.
Ben Shaffar, KDA director of Business Development, said helping veterans is something Agriculture Commissioner James Comer knew he wanted his administration to do from the start. Conversations with interested parties who have become partners in the initiative took place soon after Comer took office last year, to see what path was best to take.
“We view this as a three-tiered initiative,” Shaffar said. “The front tier is an initiative the Commissioner will announce on Jan. 22 called Kentucky Proud Jobs for Vets. It is a partnership with USA Cares, an organization that works to help veterans get reacclimated to civilian life, along with other partners.”
This portion of the project – recognizing the high unemployment rate among returning troops – will set up a job-match program where labor needs within the Kentucky Proud member network are identified for veterans looking for agricultural related employment.
The USA Cares organization will follow suit, using its database to locate jobs for veterans in other areas.
The “middle tier” of the project involves Mike Lewis, a veteran, a farmer, president of the Berea Farmers’ Market and head of the state nonprofit organization called Growing Warriors, which works closely with the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC). The FVC is a national nonprofit that works with veterans who are interested in farming, through mentorship programs and on-job training.
The FVS also helps with access to capital and farmland. According to information from the organization, its mission is to mobilize veterans to feed America.
Growing Warriors works with vets returning from service who are looking to grow their own food and contribute to the local food economy. Lewis said first, there is the sustainability and nutrition part of the program, which teaches vets how to grow and process their own food.
Second, the Growing Warriors program helps with the entrepreneurial aspect of farming. He began working with returning vets after his own brother was injured in Afghanistan.
“When he came home, he was living with us on the farm and working on the farm, and I saw how it was clearly helping him,” Lewis said. “It was providing him with a lot of benefits.”
It was then he contacted the FVC and met other veteran farmers through a retreat and formed a bond, Lewis said, much like the one he shared during his time in the military. That bond led him to working with other veterans in the area and ultimately, to the project with the KDA.
“My brother spent years in the Army and would have made it a career, but he got hurt, so all he knows is service,” he said. “I think it’s very natural for veterans to come home and see a gap that they can start filling in serving their communities.”
Building a local food economy is the way Lewis and members of his organization are serving their communities. Shaffar said with the help of Lewis, these vets can learn how to farm and from there, the project will help identify available farmland – be it existing farms that need to be taken over from retiring farmers or other land these new farmers can use.
The “back tier” involves a strategic labeling program called Homegrown by Heroes that allows veteran farmers to place a special label on their products designating the fact it was produced by a veteran. In this state, the Kentucky Proud logo will be a part of the emblem to be used. A separate national emblem will also be created.
Shaffar said he hopes on a national scale all veteran farmers will use these logos on their products.
“We’re really excited about that and have had a lot of positive feedback from military veterans,” he noted. “We are actually in the initial stages working with the FVC to brand this nationally.”
Summarizing the initiative, he said the tiers working together will help returning vets find jobs in agriculture, teach them to farm if they want to and create a marketing path for their goods to reach the marketplace.
“Personally, this is probably one of the greatest things I have or ever will get to work on,” Shaffar said.