Deston Denniston, executive director of VETS_CAFE, stands on a donated 120-acre plot of land on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, and discusses the layout of the land.
Deston Denniston stood on the edge of a 120-acre piece of property Wednesday afternoon, pointing to its various parts and rattling off the qualities of their soil. He spoke with the sort of precision honed by multiple years of permaculture experience.
Denniston is the executive director of VETS_CAFE, a nonprofit that helps veterans launch a career in agriculture, conservation, forestry or ecology; and the land outisde Rochester was recently donated to the nonprofit to bolster its work.
Specifically, the deed to the land was recorded on Dec. 14. Before that came about 10 months of feasibility studies and dialogue.
Located in a rural stretch outside Rochester in southern Thurston County, the property will play host to a bevy of educational opportunities and as a business incubator for veterans and other sponsored members as it’s slowly developed and cultivated into something sustainable.
“I see hundreds of local veteran entrepreneurs with an incredibly broad range of skills working together to create a sustainable food system and local economy,” said Denniston.
VETS_CAFE started as something much less formal. In 2012, Denniston found himself in Oregon City, Oregon, teaching a class on permaculture — or the development of an agricultural ecosystem — for veterans on a 7-acre farm. In the off-hours of the course, he and its members would often find themselves sitting at a campfire “as vets are wont to do,” said Denniston, a veteran himself.
As they sat and talked, they created an acronym — a hilariously long acronym that started out as something of a joke, but has since evolved.
“Veterans’ Entrepreneurial Training and Studies in Conservation, Agriculture, Forestry and Ecology,” he said. That name was mercifully shortened to VETS_CAFE, and became the name of the social side of the permaculture classes Denniston headed.
After more classes and campfire conversations, Denniston said he and his partners decided to launch their efforts to teach veterans the art and science of outdoor and agricultural work into a certified nonprofit, dubbed Veterans’ Ecological Trades Collective.
As he worked on his master’s degree, Denniston said, he became struck by the number of skilled veteran entrepreneurs struggling for work. Also during the same approximate timeframe, he began to construct the curriculum that would become his course.
Denniston said he and others involved were keen on getting some sort of parcel — something in the ballpark of 10 to 20 acres — to host classes and campouts.
The state’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs contacted him, asking if his organization would be interested in obtaining a 40-acre farm. As the conversation developed, the land — donated by the Seattle-based Fremont Dock LLC — morphed from 40 acres to 120 acres. A feasibility study on the land, which has sat derelict for a decade, found that there would be challenges in cultivating the place.
“But vets have seen worse,” Denniston said.
There are invasive species that need to be controlled and dead wood that needs to be cleared away. But such work fits right in with the educational basis of the course, said Denniston, and will be used as learning experiences.
The next few years will be used to craft a master plan for the land and its use, he said. Currently, one of the more pressing issues is security. Thieves stole a communication station the vets had planned to use to produce agricultural podcasts. Gates and eco blocks have been pushed aside or pulled down. Installing proper fencing has become a priority — and is made largely possible by a $5,000 donation from the Nisqually Indian Tribe.
But in the years that follow, the use for the land and the educational purposes it may fulfill are myriad — from farming to livestock to agricultural infrastructure and more. Denniston said it will serve as a business incubator for veterans keen on a career in ecology.
“I’m really looking forward to mid-spring, when we’ve had a couple of good campouts, a couple of good work parties and are starting to settle into a routine,” Denniston said.
Another permaculture course will begin in August, with a sliding price of $100 to $500 for veterans.
Since its inception, VETS_CAFE has worked with more than 400 veterans from multiple combat theaters. The organization currently has 18 members, said Denniston.
Donations toward VETS_CAFE can be given at its website, vets-cafe.com.
“Cultivators of the earth are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and its liberty by the most lasting bands.” — Thomas Jefferson.
Whether it’s Fourth of July, Veterans Day, or just another day where we live and breathe free, it is noteworthy to reflect on the industry that helped to build this nation and how it continues to support the success of our servicemembers today. As has been the case in major wars throughout U.S. history, many veterans and active-duty military still come from farming communities. Rural America grows young men and women who step up to serve, but there is a struggle for them to find agricultural work upon returning home.
In 2004, more than 44 percent of military recruits came from rural areas, and the farming industry is continually looking to give veterans job opportunities that can support them when they return to their rural roots.
The farming community built this nation. From the very start, agriculture has fueled the economy and fed a growing population. As the 20th century began, agriculture progressed with the first successful U.S. made tractor, and slowly farming with horsepower began to fade. The American tractor grew in popularity in the ’30s and more so as the economy boomed despite wartime rationing during World War II. On the homefront, farming continued but with less workforce as thousands of farm boys lined the streets to support the war effort.
Today, programs across the nation are providing an increasing amount of support for veterans, helping in areas such as mental wellness and finding the jobs and careers they want. Still, a sometimes-overlooked avenue is farming and the power of healing that comes with it. Over the last several decades programs connecting veterans to the land are seeing more and more potential.
This potential is something Jason Alves of the Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs is passionate about. He has witnessed firsthand the results of these programs, and for the past several years has dedicated his work to exploring and developing these ideas further. Alves was born in the southeastern corner of Oregon, where he grew up on his family’s ranch raising alfalfa and working on a cow/calf operation of 350 to 500 head of cattle before joining the Navy in 2001.
“I jumped at the chance to serve my country and look at potentially going into higher education and going to college,” Alves remembers.
During his four years in the Navy he served on the USS Kittyhawk, spending three years overseas in Japan.
Upon returning home, Alves’ passion for giving back and helping veterans ultimately led him to the state department, where he works as program manager of the Veterans Conservation Corps and the Vet Corps program — specifically focusing on counseling and wellness.
These programs connect veterans with nature and the state’s natural resources, with the goal of transitioning often into employment. Opportunities for veterans in these programs center around peer-mentoring, which gives veterans the chance to serve again by teaching and learning together.
The Veterans Conservation Corps began as an avenue to get outside and work primarily with salmon and stream restoration, but Alves said that as the programs continued, more and more calls came in from veterans asking how they could become involved in agriculture.
“Overall, there is a community movement in the Pacific Northwest to connect with food and where food comes from,” Alves said. “I think veterans are also caught up in that. But the bigger reason we turn to ag is due to the high rural veteran unemployment rate in our state.”
Most of the program initiatives for veterans in Washington state are located along one main stretch of the interstate highway. These opportunities focus primarily on corporate and office careers, but Alves says many veterans aren’t looking to sit in an office and want something potentially more rewarding.
“They are kind of left on their own to figure something out,” he said. “We have about 113,000 veterans who live in rural parts of the [Washington] state and office work is not something that interests them or is feasible due to location.”
That’s where the state department comes in and the Veterans Conservation Corps sees a new avenue: farming. This is a place to start for many veterans exploring options in agriculture.
“In 2015 we started the Veterans Farm at Orting, Washington, in the Puyallup Valley,” Alves said. “We have about 45 acres where smaller plots are available for veterans looking to explore farming as a part of their future.”
This program provides a starting point for the beginner to learn the basics of growing.
“We built off of what we learned in habitat restoration programs and realized that internship programs were the best option for those interested in farming,” Alves said.
The state’s Veteran Affairs department provides a stipend, and the veteran can try on an industry for a set amount of time.
“We found this was a way to place veterans, who have a high unemployment rate from rural areas, directly into ag, which has a high need for labor force,” he said.
What industries have he seen success in?
Over the last several years, Alves has explored the dairy industry as a candidate for placing veteran interns. Veterans have also made inroads on dairy farms primarily in the eastern portion of the United States through the Farmer Veteran Coalition.
Alves has met with several dairy farmers over the past two summers and is currently working on setting up the program with the hopes of successfully placing a veteran on a dairy in the coming months.
The future remains unknown, but possibilities are endless. Alves smiles at what has been done over the past decade to help veterans but always looks for ways to improve, change and grow along the way. Across the nation, support for veterans in ag is a rising beacon. Resources, networking opportunities, financial support through USDA, local grants and other partnerships help veterans to be successful in farming and continuing their service to the country through agriculture. The transition from military to agriculture can be a smooth one, and service members wanting to return to their roots and work on the land which can provide a way of healing after combat is surely a noble cause.
The next time we find ourselves enjoying a delicious meal, remember the saying: If you ate today thank a farmer, if you ate in peace thank a soldier. And just maybe the two go hand in hand.
Aleah Bright is a hobby farmer who was born and raised in Washington state and grew up showing Jersey cattle in 4-H. Aleah is enthusiastic about sharing her passion for agriculture and inspiring the future generations of American farmers.
When Lourence Dormaier returned home from Afghanistan in 2006, he wasn’t sure what to do next.
After completing a three-year stint in the Army, Lourence, who grew up on a hay farm near Ephrata in south-central Washington, found himself back in the civilian world and in need of a new career.
“I was kind of overqualified for a lot of stuff and underqualified for some big stuff,” Lourence says. “There wasn’t really anything in this area for someone without money to throw down a big deposit.”
Lourence inherited a small, 2-acre farm near Ephrata from his parents. The property was vacant sagebrush before Lourence took it over and began developing it.
“It was a dry corner of my parents’ 140-acre hay farm,” he says. “It had never been farmed.”
As he developed the property, Lourence worked during the day for a local hay export firm and devoted his free time to his modest farm. He bought some angus heifers.
Eventually, Lourence applied for a grant to build a greenhouse from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA gives special preference to veterans trying to break into agriculture or expand their businesses. The greenhouse grant was the first outside funding Lourence received.
“I wanted to provide quality food to local restaurants and individuals and provide a good income to allow me to raise my kids,” Lourence says.
The high-tunnel greenhouse system Lourence built with the USDA grant allows him to start planting earlier in the year and finish later.
Lourence grows everything from melons to cucumbers to peppers and tomatoes.
He is one of many veterans who have benefited from the nationwide push by the federal government and other organizations to create accessible avenues for veterans to enter the agriculture industry.
The 2018 Farm Bill boosts support for veterans across the board but also furnishes funding specifically to veterans.
Two grant programs—the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development program and the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers program—are initiatives with permanent funding of $30 million. That funding will increase to $50 million by 2023.
The Farm Bill also provides improved outreach and research incentives to develop new technologies to aid veteran farmers in new markets.
Dennis Place, a cattle rancher in Myakka City, Florida, has used USDA programs throughout his ranching career to benefit his small cattle operation.
“I think it is kind of foolish not to participate in USDA programs,” says Dennis, who served in the Army in Vietnam and retired as a captain. “It takes time, and a lot of people don’t take the time to sit down and talk to their Farm Service Agency or USDA agent to see what is available.”
Dennis grew up in Pennsylvania, where he spent summers and winters working on dairy farms.
“There was just something about it that I really enjoyed,” he says. “I really loved working with the animals and being around them.”
Dennis and Lourence are among the hundreds of thousands of American veterans who work in agriculture. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there were 370,619 ranchers and farmers with prior military service.
“Veterans have integrity, dependability, leadership, decision-making, tenacity, teamwork and discipline,” says Bill Ashton, Military Veterans Agriculture Liaison for USDA. Ashton says agriculture is an industry that is well matched to veteran values.
Bill says USDA’s Farm Service Agency made more than $82 million in direct loans for veterans in 2018.
USDA offers a variety of programs that provide peace of mind, access to capital and tools for making improvements to farms and ranches.
“We encourage veterans to stop by their local USDA service center or visit farmers.gov to learn more about available USDA programs,” says Florida FSA State Executive Director Sherry McCorkle. “Your local FSA and NRCS staff members can talk you through available options, whether you’re looking for a loan or a conservation practice.”
As part of a partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor, USDA offers two national-level apprenticeship programs that allow veterans to earn money while learning a new career. The Agricultures Commodity Graders program is a 12-month training agenda sponsored by the USDA. Another program for wildland firefighters provides on-the-job-training through the Forest Service.
USDA also partners with the Veterans Administration to support its Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment program. Under the VRE program, veterans with service-connected disabilities who are struggling to find jobs can get help finding employment or education opportunities that are likely to lead to employment.
While the grants and loan programs are helpful, veterans interested in farming face other challenges.
Finding land for new farmers is an ongoing challenge for a lot of people interested in agriculture, says Jason Alves, program manager for the Veterans Conservation Corps/Vet Corps of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.
Jason says those looking to enter the business sometimes acquire land by working with partners or taking over existing farms. Jason says sometimes there are farmers in a position to retire that don’t necessarily want to sell off their land to someone who has no interest in the industry.
“It is common enough that it has us looking to figure out what would be a good solution,” Jason says. “A farmer has acreage, irrigation, a really good spot. So we want to find the right veteran at the right time where they can take that on.”
Jason says there is a growing interest among veterans in farming, and the government is trying to create a “landing pad” for veterans who want to get into agriculture but may not have the resources available to do so.
“Oregon also has an increasing number of veterans asking for a connection,” Jason says. The Pacific Northwest has a long tradition of connecting veterans to agriculture.”
A Coalition and Community
Lourence says as his business grew, he wanted to share his story with other veterans who were interested in agriculture. He discovered the Farmers Veteran Coalition and started following them online.
The coalition is a national nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that provides support for veterans interested in transitioning from military service into agriculture careers.
The coalition offers several support pathways for veterans interested in the agriculture industry, including the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund and a grant program that provides veterans financial assistance for agriculture ventures.
Lourence applied for and was awarded a $5,000 grant from the fund. He used the money to buy a tractor for his greenhouse.
“It has been a blessing because it cut down on a lot of labor time,” he says.
Lourence says he also used help from Work Vessels for Veterans—an all-volunteer foundation that aims to help veterans begin careers or further education. The program acquires and distributes crucial start-up tools for veterans to become entrepreneurs.
Work Vessels for Veterans donated two commercial coolers for Lourence’s business.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition sponsors chapters in nine states. Lourence is on the nonprofit’s board in Washington.
For Lourence, work with the coalition proved beneficial not only because it helped with his small farm operation, but because it allowed him to assist in training events and meet other veterans interested in farming as a career.
“It serves two purposes,” Laurence says. “It is allowing me to continue to serve others and giving me an opportunity to network and learn more that I can then share.”
Seminars and trainings spearheaded by the Farmer Veteran Coalition helped Lourence not only spread the word about agriculture programs for veterans, but helped him build a network.
“We find each other and help each other and keep going,” he says. “Just because you are out of the service doesn’t mean your service stops.”