boot swap military

Boot Swap from Combat to Cowboy

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by R. Brian Williams

Military entrepreneurial opportunities extend beyond the traditional business model.

As a member of the Armed Forces, one has incredible opportunities. The travel, training and benefits are the best that can be found. However, for those looking to get their hands in the dirt, there is a program that is ready to take you down to the farm.

Entry into the military takes a person away from home and hearth and puts them into roles of sacred trust and great responsibilities. But those times are finite, for some it may be after 20 to 30 years, for others, it may be after their first hitch. In the end, it comes to a close and will end sooner than most think.

A huge challenge for those leaving the military is to find what is next. A lot of veterans go to college to either start or finish up a degree and then into the workforce. However, going back to school is not mandatory and not all people are looking to get back into a classroom. Many also do not look forward to being told what to do by a civilian employer in a traditional workplace. This is where opportunity knocks and is answered by those willing and able to get their hand
dirty and their boots muddy.

LTC (R) Bruce Barker entered into the U.S. Army shortly after graduating from high school in Missouri. Bruce’s grandfather owned a feed store where Bruce spent time working behind the counter and learned to appreciate the hard work and rewards of all things agricultural. But as most young men are wont to be, Bruce was ready to leave Missouri and the Ag life to see the world with the storied 82nd Airborne.

After a tour as a paratrooper and seeing everything between North Carolina and the Sinai, Barker returned to civilian life and enrolled in college, joined the National Guard, and eventually became a police officer. But no matter how far away from the Ag life Bruce got, those roots were strong and kept calling him to come back to work the earth.

The Department of Agriculture and the Veterans Administration has teamed up to provide Veterans like Barker an opportunity to get back to the farm and improve their chances of success. Like all government programs, there are certain steps for one to take before they see any grants or loans — but the rewards are out there for those who persevere.

Veterans returning to the United States from active duty face many challenges, according to the Department of Agriculture’s website. The Department of Labor reports that as of May 2010, more than 20 percent of young veterans are unemployed. Moreover, recent data show that 45 percent of armed service members are from rural America. The agricultural industry can be a logical solution to fill the economic gap veterans face. The USDA is “committed to assisting veterans start or continue farming and ranching operations in order to strengthen the American economy  and provide livelihoods to our
returning veterans.”

In addition to the USDA’s efforts to hire returning Veterans and Reservists and qualifying family members, the organization also is strengthening service delivery to members of the
military who live in rural America or who are interested in farming or ranching. The USDA for Veterans, Reservists and Military Families Task Force is working to create models of how the diverse array of USDA programs can work together to help communities establish job training programs and other efforts to assist returning military.

Back in Missouri, Barker took advantage of some of these programs and recently attended a three-day grazing class designed to educate ranchers in grazing management to help out their productivity. Those three days that Barker invested in a classroom now makes him eligible
for a grant to assist him in building a fence for his livestock.

The federal government loans for a farmer or rancher are a bit more complicated than traditional financial assistance. As Barker will tell you, a micro loan from the USDA puts a rancher into somewhat of a Catch-22 situation. For a farmer or rancher to get a loan to help him along the way, he must first show that he or she has already worked the  farm for the last three years. Chicken and egg analogy here, or in Barker’s world, cow and calf.  But

Barker says the headache is worth it, as government loans have very low interest rates and a rancher can take up to seven years to repay those loans.

The information is out there for a service member to access, and this is something that Barker stresses as being very important. “Gather the information and learn as much as you can about getting into farming or ranching before you jump in,” he says, adding that the Vets-to-Farmers, the USDA website, and the Farmer Veteran Coalition are all great places to educate yourself on working in the Ag sector. These sites are focused on assisting the veteran in being a success in farming and ranching.

For those who want to have more formal in-class room instruction, schools across the country offer agricultural studies for veterans as well. The University of Nebraska caters specifically to veterans in their Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots program. This program is a “University of Nebraska-Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA) program designed to assist eligible military personnel, their families and armed forces veterans to become Farmers, Ranchers, and Business Entrepreneurs in their next careers. Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots utilizes existing programs funded by the federal Department of Agriculture, Small Business Administration, Veterans Administration, Department of Defense, and various state and local agencies to create successful business succession plans that match participants with existing farm/ business/ranch owners.”

If Momma Aint Happy…

Along with educating yourself, Barker points out that you must have cooperation from your home front as well. Fortunately for him, Barker’s wife, Sherry, was raised on a farm and knew what to expect. She bought into the ranching lifestyle and supports the family’s dream of making the ranch work. “This is just as important as any decision that a couple makes together and has lifestyle changing consequences,” says Barker.

As the Barker ranch is now at the end of a two-mile long dirt driveway, an urban lifestyle is not exactly what is at hand for the family. A testament to her grit and hard work ethics, Sherry bought in early and has supported the decision to move to that rural part of Missouri — raising triplets to boot. She made the commitment to make the dream of owning a ranch a reality. The planning alone to make the dream of a ranch was a long and drawn-out process as well.

Once Bruce and Sherry agreed that a return to the Ag lifestyle was their future, the hard part began. The
Barkers searched for property in the area where they wanted to live and found several candidate sites. Barker offers a few words of caution: “Don’t jump into the first thing that you see…be patient and look for the right site that will fit what you want to do in the long run. Prices of land may or may not be right and you want to make your dollars stretch as far as you can. Getting into the first thing that catches your eye may cost you more than you want to spend. Do your homework and work to find what will be best for you.”

As Barker will remind you, a ranch is a business, and a business has to make ends meet to be successful. An acumen for balancing a checkbook and paying bills on time is just as important as knowing how to work your cows and mend fences, he says. While the loans and grants help out in the short run, turning a profit is key for any business. Loans are just that, and a loan and will have to be paid back eventually.

A service member has many choices when they separate and opportunities can be overwhelming. While some choose to go back to college, work in an office, drive a truck or learn a skilled trade, others have the opportunity to work the earth and get back to what feeds America. The Veterans Department, USDA and institutes of higher learning are all there as resources to use.

Educate yourself on your future and explore the road less taken. As Barker would tell you, there is nothing better than working the land, growing food for others and making something for your children to have when you are gone.

Some helpful websites for researching your Ag options:

www.veteranstofarmers.org
www.outreach.usda.gov/veterans.htm
www.newfarmers.usda.gov/veterans
www.farmvetco.org
www.ncta.unl.edu/specialty-programs-ncta-curtis

— R. Brian Williams is a recently retired Army officer who is looking into his own agricultural opportunities