The Department of Agriculture and Chamber of Commerce Foundation on Feb. 17 announced a joint initiative to help veterans gain employment in the agricultural industry. The USDA plans to leverage the foundation's Hiring Our Heroes program to connect with former military personnel transitioning into life after service.

"Today's agreement opens the door for thousands of service members who participate in Hiring Our Heroes events around the world to benefit from USDA's vast array of tools and resources," Lanon Baccam, the USDA's deputy under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services and military veterans agricultural liaison, said in a press release. "This new partnership strengthens USDA's ongoing efforts to help veterans pursue rewarding careers in farming, ranching, or in the fast-growing agriculture and food sectors."

Filling farm employment gaps
Many in the agricultural industry a farmer shortage is nearing, reported Forbes contributor Geoff Williams. According to the USDA, the average American farmer is around 60 years old. Additionally, only 6 percent of farmers are under the age of 35 which means, in a few decades, one-fourth of the population will have retired for good. Industry experts believe almost a million new farmers will be required to maintain current levels of production. The number of crop workers is also falling. Most are around 40 years old, reported The Wall Street Journal.

According to NBC News, the reasoning behind the shortage is simple: Younger Americans don't want to work in the agricultural sector.

"The aging of American farmers coupled with fewer students in agriculture studies and the fact that so many younger people don't look at it as a profession to get into is very worrisome," Milt McGiffen, an agriculture professor at the University of California, Riverside, told the news organization.

Stakeholders take on the problem
Private companies have attempted to address the impending farmer shortage by lobbying Congress to act. The legislative body is currently evaluating legislation that would address the problem. The Young Farmer Success Act would allow young farmers who operate qualified farms or ranches to apply for government assistance and take part in a loan-forgiveness program. According to industry experts, starting a farm is immensely expensive.

"You've got to buy the land, the equipment, find buyers for your product. It's very hard work. Plus there's always the uncertainty of the weather. It's not an easy life," Jay Jackman, executive director for the National Association of Agricultural Educators, told NBC News.

Others believe young veterans could fill the void left by aging farmers, reported The New York Times. And, a number of nonprofits have developed to act on this notion. The Farmer Veteran Coalition, based in Davis, California, provides educational and financial resources to thousands of former military members looking to start farms or ranches. According to the organization, 72 percent of these veterans enlisted after 9/11 and 59 percent have disabilities sustained in combat.

For many veterans who take advantage of programs offered by organizations like the Farmer Veteran Coalition, agriculture is a natural fit. Often, these men and women come from rural backgrounds and arrive home after the service looking for a quiet yet productive career.

"My goal is to find a job where I can move my family somewhere more remote so we enjoy life," Erik Fries, a Marine veteran who works with an agricultural nonprofit in Illinois, told The Times. "I guess I'm looking for a simpler life. I really would love to start a family business and I feel a small-scale farm would be ideal."  

Government steps in
Congress in 2014, as part of the Agriculture Act, created an initiative to fund veterans interested in starting farms. And, last year, the USDA formed an interagency partnership with the Department of Defense in an effort to integrate agricultural training into the military's Transition Assistance Program.

The USDA hopes its collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce Foundation will help save American farms while providing fulfilling and stable careers to ex-military personnel.

"When our young men and women raise their hand to serve, they're doing so for a greater mission and a greater purpose and a greater good," Eric Eversole, president of Hiring Our Heroes, said in an interview with the Military Times. "The greater good also exists in agriculture: You're feeding the world's people."