The United States Department of Agriculture is now taking applications for $15 million in grants to support socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers through the 2501 Program. Administered by the USDA’s Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement, the 2501 Program has provided over $119 million in 484 grants since 1994. Eligible applicants, including not-for-profit organizations, community-based organizations, and a range of higher education institutions serving African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities can be awarded up to $450,000 for education, training, farming demonstrations, and conferences on farming and agricultural business practices.
For 30 years, the 2501 Program has helped socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and with the passing of the 2014 Farm Bill, support was extended to veterans. Director of the OPPE, Mike Beatty, says: “Socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers deserve equal access to USDA programs and services. 2501 grants go a long way in fulfilling our mission to increase awareness of and ensure equitable participation in our programs. This can lead to more sustainable farming and ranching operations.”
Sustainable farming is where former U.S. Marine John Turner sought refuge in the difficult transition back to civilian life. After suffering a traumatic brain injury on his final tour in Iraq, Turner came home with severe PTSD. Turner and his wife Cathy settled on a 10-acre piece of land to grow Wild Roots Farm Vermont, believing that there, Turner and other veterans who would come to the farm could heal from the scars of a war-torn service through the practice of sustainable agriculture. Turner knows too well the staggeringly high rate of suicides among veterans and the need to find ways to support reintegration back into the community. “Agriculture serves to be an incredible mechanism for that to take place. I’ve watched men’s and women’s faces change in an instant as soon as they touch the soil. There’s no prescription that can provide that. To get these guys off medication and get them engaged in the field and engaged in the community is just absolutely incredible.”
Wild Roots Farm Vermont has received funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and is now graduating to the Conservation Stewardship Program which will allow them to invest in more sustainable practices like agroforestry. Turner wasn’t aware of the 2501 Program, being smack dab in the middle of a busy farming season, but he did take the time to speak with us after a long day of work.
Funding for veterans and socially disadvantaged farmers is “a step in the right direction for the USDA,” says Turner, recalling statistics from the 2017 Census of Agriculture that show a crisis of attrition as farmers retire without younger farmers ready to take their place. At the time of the census, the average farmer’s age was 59.4 years old, with farmers over 65 outnumbering those under 35 more than six to one. Turner finds this especially concerning considering the increase in population projections on a global level as well as the amount of land being bought up and subdivided for housing developments. But, he says: “There is a lot of programming available to assist those driven by the mission, and whether they served in the military or not, when people understand what their intentions are and why they’re doing what they’re doing, especially when it comes to food systems and community engagement, it’s a good thing to support. We need more people like that to step into those positions of farmers who are passing along the torch.”
Of 3.2 million American farmers, 95% are white. Military farmers account for 11% of U.S. farmers and 52% of them are full time. Turner knows that veterans and socially disadvantaged communities bring invaluable resources to the table. He explains that serving in combat is mission-driven and community-centered. “To be in that extreme environment and to go home and have nothing there is so difficult. So put these men and women in the fields and allow them to be part of something greater than themselves as they know how to do. That’s what veterans can teach when it comes to food.” Turner continues,” People who have been suppressed throughout the course of their lives are less likely to take things for granted as well, they have that same mission-driven approach.” As for the USDA and for us, “The best bit of advice I have for anyone looking to support veterans or underserved communities is to continue to lift them up and encourage them to fulfill their greatest potential in this work.”