“Our country gets divided over matters of war and peace, over how food is raised, but this joining of the two makes those divisions go away. Wherever they go and however they farm. Our military fights together. Soldiers put aside differences in politics, religion, social class and race, and then they all fight together. Unfortunately, there is a lot of division in our nation over how food is raised, and that makes a sad division in our support for farmers.”
– Michael O’Gorman
Today and everyday, the UC Food Observer thanks all veterans for their service to the nation…
About the Farmer Veteran Coalition: The Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) is a national non-profit organization headquartered in Davis, California. Its purpose is to link veterans with employment and educational opportunities in farming and agriculture. FVC believes that veterans possess the “unique skills and character needed to strengthen rural communities and create sustainable food systems.” FVC has a number of important programs, including the Homegrown by Heroes label, the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund, a variety of educational workshops, and a peer-to-peer network. The FVC website also contains a variety of business resources.
Michael O’Gorman is the Executive Director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. He began farming in 1970. In 1990, Michael was hired to run TKO Farms, the first organic farm in Salinas, California. Over the next several years TKO Farms became the country’s leading grower of packaged salad greens. Michael later joined Mission Organics, and in 1998 began working for Jacobs Farms/Del Cabo, where he was tasked with developing 1,600 acres of intensive organic vegetable and herb production in the northern half of Baja California, including 30 acres of indoor tomatoes. Michael began the Farmer Veteran Coalition out of the back of his pickup truck in 2008.
Q: When you began this work did you ever imagine it would gain this much prominence and national attention?
Michael: Yes. I just knew. The reason why is because the way the first 200 people I told I was going to do this all reacted. They were all touched. It was a simple concept that hadn’t been put together by anyone before. There was a universal attraction to it. How many things out there does one get to do that everyone likes?
UCFO Comment: Everyone reveres veterans and farmers…
Michael: Yes, exactly. Our country gets divided over matters of war and peace, over how food is raised, but this joining of the two makes those divisions go away. Wherever they go and however they farm. Our military fights together. Soldiers put aside differences in politics, religion, social class and race, and then they all fight together. Unfortunately, there is a lot of division in our nation over how food is raised, and that makes a sad division in our support for farmers.
Being a farmer my entire life – I was one of the first and one of the largest organic farmers in the country – I just cringe when people put down my fellow farmers. It’s a visceral reaction of mine. It’s wrong. These are people that grow our food and take care of our land. I’ve been a farmer all my life. And I like that the Farmer Veteran Coalition is something people can come together on. It’s a very positive thing. It’s one of those things where the microcosm and the macrocosm are both good. The effect on a single farmer is powerful…and the collective effect is also very strong.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you? You’re incredibly busy.
Michael: Long! (Laughs) I wish I spent more of it outside and visiting vets on the farm, which is why I started this. The demands of growing this project have been enormous. And we’ve grown – and are growing – quickly. If we hadn’t had three hundred veterans a month calling us each month asking for our help to become a farmer and get into agriculture, it would have been irresponsible to grow this organization this fast. But there is no other organization doing this work on a national level; it’s really, really needed. We’re pushing and holding it together until we get enough staffing, funding and infrastructure to help as many people as possible.
Q: You have an excellent working relationship with the USDA. Would you like to see a stronger public/private partnership there?
Michael: I would love it. But really our partnership with the USDA could not be stronger. I’m not sure we really need to change anything. And the support is not just from the top down; it’s not just Secretary Vilsack and the Military Veterans Agricultural Liaison. There’s a USDA office in Davis [the Farmers Veteran Coalition is located in Davis] with numerous staff people. It’s really like they all work with us. We work with a variety of USDA agencies, including Farm Services Agency, the Risk Management Agency, and NRCS. They are all here to help. If there was anything brilliant in our design it was in the way that we leverage our partners to create a network. For every person on our staff we have hundreds of partners in other organizations, including Farm Credit, USDA, Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, regional programs working with veterans in agriculture…and all of these people in these organizations are willing to help. It creates a enormous network to help veterans who want to farm.
Q: I’m interested in how you and your organization are shaping public policy. For example, the Micro Loan program. Did you think you’d be doing this kind of policy work when you started?
Michael: I never thought I’d be influencing national policy. I did think – and hope – I’d influence how people grew food and treated labor. As a farmer, I have cared the most about being a good boss and creating good jobs. That’s been the most important thing to me.
One reason I don’t like speaking negatively of another farmer is because my way to influence other farmers was by being successful and effective. And I was able to influence the growth of the organic industry and the practice of a lot of conventional farms (even if they didn’t go 100% into organics). I wasn’t thinking of policy so much as sharing my passion for farming with young women and men upon their return home.
The policy thing kind of fell in my lap. In 2012, the Farmer Veteran Coalition was a little organization with three people in the office. But 2012 was the time when most of the things that went into the 2014 Farm Bill that were going to help veterans were being written. I sat in our office above the Golden First Bank in downtown Davis and about six senate offices called within a couple of weeks. Someone would answer the phone and say, “Michael, here’s another one.” Those calling were staffers from Senators who were members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. They’d say, “We hear you help veterans get into agriculture. Is there anything we can write into the Farm Bill to help with that?”
I started making stuff up on the spot and it got written into law. Many of the ideas came from other people. Setting up an office for the Military Veterans Agricultural Liaison was an idea that came from someone else but that we shared. And it got written into the Farm Bill and now it’s an office at the USDA. It is all kind of fun when you have a good idea and the world beats a path to you.
Q: There’s an effort to frame farming as public service being led by the National Young Farmers Coalition. What do you think about this?
Michael: The National Young Farmers Coalition is seeking to help young and beginning farmers to write off student debt. We certainly need more farmers. I don’t have a lot of knowledge on this specific proposal, but if that helps us get more farmers and get their debt out of the way, that should be a good thing.
As director of this coalition I really work on trying to get the word out that there are many ways to go into agriculture and be a farmer. Owning your own farm is not the only way. When I managed production for farms, I was the farmer, I rented the land, but I didn’t own it. I found the land, I set up irrigation, secured the equipment and seed and did everything a farmer does. But someone else paid the bills and took care of the marketing and sales; I focused on the production. That’s one thing. Being an employee for someone else’s operation means you don’t have to own land, the market, or the equipment. You can farm!
We really tried to tell veterans that it’s a big industry and any role you have in it is valuable and wonderful. We want to broaden how people look at the industry.
UC Food Observer comment: There’s the recent study by Purdue and USDA that shows that there are thousands of jobs in agriculture, food and natural resources sectors that can’t be filled…
Michael: Yes. And again, that’s in part because we need to do more to educate people about the variety of jobs in agriculture. A lot of people are advised to buy land and go into debt near affluent urban areas where consumers will buy your product at a top market value. That works for some people – it’s certainly worked for some in this area – but it’s a big country out there. There are ways to get into farming and land is available all over. I’m not saying that isn’t a good way – absolutely it is a good way and again, we have veterans in California doing exceptionally well with that model. But we’re trying to let people know there is a broad range of ways to go into agriculture and we need to support them all because it’s a national crisis.
Q: You have a stakeholder conference coming up. Why should people plan to attend this event?
Michael: Veterans are a small fraction of our general population and only a small fraction of people who work in agriculture. The overlap of those two populations is very unique. The veterans we serve are among the most geographically isolated: they are rural residents. Most organizations that have sprouted up and grown to help post-9/11 veterans are urban-based. The people that run those organizations are good, highly-educated and caring but they are almost always headquartered in large cities. The veterans we work with are rural, and many live a couple of miles from their nearest neighbor. They are comfortable outside. One of the things we want to do is help them through this isolation and put them in touch with one another. So a chance to bring them together is a powerful experience for all of them.
The conference is also a great opportunity for other groups and people involved in agriculture, for community-based groups, the public and the media to see what this is about. It’s a really unique thing…and it’s right here. We recommend people come to the evening dinner and as many parts of the conference as they can. At the dinner, you can hear veterans share their stories…and those stories are compelling and moving. I don’t know what it is about the power that comes from doing important and difficult and real things in your life…but it gives somebody a certain eloquence that’s powerful and moving to hear.
And again, this whole national movement is headquartered here in Davis. I could tell you a funny true story about that.
UC Food Observer comment: We want to hear it!
Michael: We incorporated in 2009. I was looking for an office space. One of my ex-bosses told me, “I just invested a fair amount of money in the David Brower Center in Berkeley. I can give you an office there.” I thought about this for about five minutes. Remember, I was a lifelong organic famer and I was trying to build a national organization. So I passed. For $250 a month I rented someone’s book closet; there was enough space for one desk and one telephone. But it gave me a Davis address. I thought Davis was the right place to be because of its agricultural importance.
Q: How do you interact with UC?
Michael: Well we have several veterans who are attending UC Davis. Farmer Veteran 001 – our first veteran – got a job managing vegetable production 2008. He went off on his own at 2009 with his partner. They are now married and she farms with him. He was accepted into UC Davis’s graduate program in international agriculture development this year and we’ve given him a scholarship. Another veteran we work with is enrolled in the undergraduate program in sustainable agriculture. He helps us conduct outreach to other veterans in the school. UC Davis is a tremendous place.