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.

Army veteran Lourence Dormaier on his farm near Ephrata, Washington. PHOTO COURTESY OF LOURENCE DORMAIER

“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.

Opportunity Knocks

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.”

 

Retired Army Captain Dennis Place checks on his cows on his ranch in Myakka City, Florida. Photo by Mark Sellers

 

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.

Overcoming Obstacles

While the grants and loan programs are helpful, veterans interested in farming face other challenges.

Army veteran Lourence Dormaier on his farm near Ephrata, Washington.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LOURENCE DORMAIER

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.

 

Army veteran Lourence Dormaier used a USDA grant to build this high-tunnel greenhouse system on his farm in Ephrata, Washington. USDA gives special preference to veterans trying to break into agriculture or expand their businesses. PHOTO COURTESY OF LOURENCE DORMAIER

 

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.”