Michael O’Gorman says he can’t point to just one reason why he sees more veterans going into farming, but for years he knew he wanted to help.
“It’s been a journey of understanding myself about what makes them tick,” said the founder of the Farmer-Veteran Coalition. “The thing I felt I had to offer was my own experience in agriculture.”
O’Gorman of California spent 40 years managing vegetable operations, but after Sept. 11, 2001 he found a new calling. He launched his organization with a mission of mobilizing veterans to feed America.
“There’s experiences they have; there’s nothing you could do to take that back,” he said. “We can give them something that has as much a sense of purpose as the military had.”
The coalition’s programs include educational opportunities, career development services and networking. It also launched a partnership with the Ohio Department of Agriculture allowing its Homegrown by Heroes label to be used on products from Ohio farmers who have served honorably or are still serving in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The veterans who are turning to O’Gorman’s group sometimes have little or no previous farming experience. He said the same drive that led them to the military also attracts them to agriculture.
“The personal characteristics of determination, willingness to work hard, the hypervigilance that people connect with is actually a really good thing in agriculture,” he said.
And some simply need the solitude that agriculture can provide to collect themselves after returning from strenuous environments.
One thing that many farmer-veterans appear to have in common, O’Gorman said, is the desire to continue meaningful work.
“When people talk about agriculture being healing, that’s actually the healing part. There is a purpose to it,” he said. “It’s larger than a job.”
Meet a few of the Ohioans who have served their country and are now working with the Farmer-Veteran Coalition to keep Ohio growing.
SHANE AND VICTORIA WOOD
Wood Family Farm
Starting in 2002, Shane spent time in Germany and Kosovo before his tour of duty in Iraq, where he was injured by an improvised explosive device. After nine surgeries, he returned to fight in Fallujah before coming back to his hometown of Kenton in 2005.
“I didn’t really have any trade skills for civilian life,” he said, noting he had joined the Army at age 17.
After taking various jobs and eventually being laid off from a factory, he wound up working for the U.S. Border Patrol until he was re-injured, requiring another surgery.
Now he’s working toward his criminal justice degree.
But through all of this, he maintained a desire to return to the 70-acre farm owned by his grandfather, a Korean War veteran.
Wood said the “mission first” mindset of the military has served him well on the farm, where he raises beef cattle.
“You want to accomplish that goal. And you work as hard as you can to accomplish that goal,” he said. “As long as you work hard and put the time and effort into it, in agriculture, it can pay off.”
Having time to be alone and care for his animals has helped him deal with the stress he experienced during his service. And he’s hopeful that one day the farm will provide enough income to support his family.
“That would be awesome,” he said. “That would be kind of a dream.”
Get to know Shane Wood a little more in this segment from Our Ohio TV.
IVORY AND KIPP HARLOW
Dickie Bird Farm
Ivory Harlow and her husband Kipp met at Lackland Air Force base in Texas. While she had initially decided to go into the service to help pay for her education, she noted
“There’s no way you can join the military without becoming patriotic.”
She and her husband both grew up on farms, but their first 10 years together was “subdivision living.” So when Kipp’s job as a biomedical engineer led them to Ohio, they began their farm, raising goats, chickens and produce.
“You’re giving people food; it’s such a personal relationship. There’s a real intimacy. I really like that,” Ivory said.
They sell some of their products at a farmers market at the local VA hospital, where Ivory says both veterans and non-veterans embrace their story. And she’s excited to connect with a growing number of her fellow veterans going into farming.
“There’s a network there and it’s becoming bigger, and that’s pretty cool,” she said.
BRIAN AND BETH DUFFY
Find A Way Farm
If he was going to make something of himself, “I really needed to get that kick in the butt,” said Brian Duffy, reflecting on his decision in high school to join the military.
He went on to spend 20 years in special operations as an Army Ranger and in Special Forces. His wife, Beth, worked as a parachute rigger and later as a military court reporter.
In their free time, they found themselves backpacking and enjoying the outdoors. After they left the service, they began looking for property to build a cabin and settled on a farm in Meigs County, where Beth’s family was from.
“We bought the farm with the intention of retiring one day,” Brian said. “I was just going to plant fast growing pine and that was going to be it.”
But as the couple started exploring opportunities for small-scale farms, they decided to make a go of living from the land. They now produce lamb, chicken and eggs and hope to one day use their 80-acre homestead as a model of how people could have a second career in farming.
Brian said his experience in special forces prepared him for this latest venture: “You integrate yourself into new communities and you have to understand what that’s all about and that really set the tone for me in my life.”
“It’s austere living. And there’s a lot of improvising,” he said of his service. “There’s civil affairs work you have to do: put in an irrigation system in Zimbabwe, put in a clinic in Malawi, using mules in Haiti.”
Now he and his wife spend time expanding pastures, improving the grass and building fences and trails.
“This farm is kind of like a canvas in a sense. And we’re painting it every day,” he said.
Note: The Homegrown by Heroes label designates products that were grown by current and former military members. The American Farm Bureau has partnered with the Farmer-Veteran Coalition to develop a mentorship network to pair returning veterans with Farm Bureau members.
While only 16 percent of the population lives in rural America, 40 percent of people going into the military come from rural areas.
If supporting programs like the Farmers Veteran Coalition, Farm Bureau’s Patriot Project and hearing these veterans stories is important to you, consider becoming an Our Ohio Supporter. For just $25 a year, you can stay connected with Ohio food and farm stories while supporting local foods and community outreach.