When war veterans return home, their future often is grim. Suffering from injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, they find it hard to acclimate to society.
“They give you medication, put you on another pill to keep you from killing yourself and consider that a success,” said Jerry Ireland, who spent 10 years in the Army and served in Afghanistan.
“We as veterans are trying to change that. It’s not good enough for vets to come home and not work,” Ireland said.
Thanks to the newly chartered Farmer Veteran Coalition of Maine, of which Ireland is executive director, Mainers who served in the military can now find a fertile future in agriculture.
“This gives us an opportunity to be a success and become part of the food and agricultural movement in Maine,” said Ireland, who runs a diversified farm called Ireland Hill Farms in Swanville. “It’s a hand up, not a hand out.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 12, and Thursday, Jan. 14, Ireland and fellow veterans in the chapter will hold demonstrations and host a panel at the Agricultural Trade Show to spread the word. A new partnership with Get Real, Get Maine and Homegrown By Heroes also will be announced.
Currently, 55 farms in the state are owned and operated by veterans, and 12 farmers, ranchers, fishermen and producers are now certified under the new Homegrown By Heroes classification. A goal of 20 is set for spring.
Through a newly created fellowship fund, the chapter will award several $5,000 grants to veterans with disabilities this year to farm. The group also is orchestrating an equipment donation and exchange program in which older farmers can hand off what they are not using to veterans. All these initiatives help “advance the business plan of our veteran farmers,” said Ireland, who, despite his own injuries suffered in duty, taps maple trees, makes honey and raises 200 chickens.
He also planted 250 apple trees and farms livestock. Soon he will opening a general store.
“I look at it as a business, not just a farm,” Ireland, 40, said.
Why do former military members make good farmers?
“Veterans bring similar skill sets to the table. From survival to changing on the fly. … You always prepare for three courses of action: When you get there, none of those plans work,” Ireland said. “All of those translate into huge successes in the farming world.”
Just like local, organic and non-GMO, farming veterans have their own label to set their product apart in the marketplace. The Homegrown By Heroes sticker slapped on goods from maple syrup to soap to pork is a new seal of approval. And for its producers, it’s much more than branding.
“The pride I felt as a veteran on active duty is lost along the way in civilian life. You put it on a shelf,” said Ireland, who has been farming for 3 ½ years. “With the label, we get that sense of pride and ownership back.”
At 10 a.m. Tuesday, products such as pork, barbecue sauce and maple syrup carrying the Homegrown By Heroes label will be showcased, and a chef from Searsport will hold a cooking demonstration. A press conference follows.
From 10 to 11 a.m. Thursday, a workshop called “Meet Your Farmer Veteran” will showcase five farming veterans who will share their stories and take questions from the public.
The Agricultural Trades show is held at the Augusta Civic Center and is free. For more information, visit getrealmaine.com.