USDA, Texas AgrAbility and Partners Helping Veterans Find Their Mission and Purpose in Agriculture
The Battleground to Breaking Ground (BG2BG) program is a multifaceted agricultural business training program for veterans and beginning farmers and ranchers. Through BG2BG, cohorts acquire the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in starting their agricultural operation.
Story and Photos compiled by Melissa Blair, Public Affairs Specialist, Corpus Chrisi, Texas
They all come from different walks and stages of life and for many reasons, but one thing they all share is they want to know more about starting their own farm or ranch or improving their knowledge and resources for their existing agriculture enterprise. And the Battleground to Breaking Ground (BG2BG) program is just the island these military veterans and beginning agricultural producers need in a sea of “information overload.”
The BG2BG program is a multifaceted agricultural business training program for veterans and beginning farmers and ranchers. The original idea for the program was a two-day workshop to help veterans learn about local, state, and federal resources that relate to agriculture.
Since BG2BG started, the program has expanded to teach business plan development, launched an approved Department of Defense (DoD) SkillBridge program for transitioning active-duty military members, added mentoring, and taught agricultural production training in in a variety of enterprises, such as beekeeping cattle, sheep and goat production through a five-day in-person bootcamp, to help trainees decide what avenues they wanted to pursue. Through BG2BG, cohorts acquire the skills and knowledge to help them start and/or improve their agricultural operation.
“Since its inception, the Battleground to Breaking Ground organizers have really worked closely with both the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as well as the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA),” said Kristy Oates, State Conservationist with the USDA NRCS in Texas.
Training Program Expands to Meet Diverse Needs
The BG2BG is under the Texas AgrAbility program, which is a part of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service that provides services to individuals engaged in agriculture who have disabilities, chronic health conditions, or functional limitations to start or stay engaged in production agriculture.
BG2BG Program Director, Erin Kimbrough, Texas AgrAbility staff, veterans in the program, and partners including USDA, Texas Department of Agriculture, Farmer Veteran Coalition, and many others, have been working to expand and improve the program with a phased cohort training program to meet the growing needs of the veteran and non-military beginning farmer/rancher population.
“The program’s important for a lot of reasons,” Kimbrough said. “Battleground to Breaking Ground provides much needed support to our new and very new agriculture producers, as well as helps our farmers and ranchers be more sustainable because they have a written plan and learn how to best implement it.”
Since the cohort training program started in 2016, there have been a total of 12 cohorts, with cohort 13 applications being accepted until December 5, 2022. More than 100 individuals have gone through the program, and many are now mentors and trainers themselves.
According to Kimbrough, “Many come with little or no experience, but farmers and ranchers that have been in production for years can really benefit from participating in the program too, by developing a business plan and learning how to work the USDA, state and non-profit programs together for helping with their agricultural enterprise.”
“Oftentimes, people come into the program with their focus set on one practice, like cattle ranching, but not having any idea what will work for them, or the time and costs involved,” said Kimbrough. “Plans tend to change as they go through the Battleground to Breaking Ground program.”
“We give participants that structure that they need, where they have a plan for how to learn about agriculture. And they get that business planning, so that they know what their finances are, and they know what’s feasible,” said Faye McGuire, program manager for the BG2BG Program.
Sandi Parriott is an active-duty Army Veterinarian, who participated in the BG2BG’s Skills Training Program (STP), through the DoD SkillBridge Program as part of her transition back to civilian life. The DoD SkillBridge Program is an opportunity for service members to gain valuable civilian work experience through specific industry training. Parriott describes the program as “an opportunity for transitioning service members to get a jump on their career.”
Parriott worked closely with her mentor, Heidi Barber, who is also a military veteran. “There’s a common ground there. She’s actually been through the Battleground to Breaking Ground program, and she’s a rancher—she does sheep and goats. Between those shared experiences, it allows us to meet on a common ground,” said Parriott.
Kimbrough explains this has been a shared theme among those attending the program. It is easier to take help and guidance from those who have been through similar experiences and a comparable lifestyle than those who haven’t. By having this mentorship program run by military veterans themselves, new participants have been more likely to stick through the program and start a new agricultural business.
Financial and Technical Assistance Goes Above and Beyond
The BG2BG program helps with much more than just education.
“New ideas come into play and those are expanded on. Many times, veterans will come back and teach or share with the next group. As these opportunities for training are provided from year to year, there are always additional participants that come back just to let others hear their story,” said Oates of the BG2BG training program. “They have a great network and ability to communicate for years to come.”
Doug Havemann, veteran and co-owner of Mesquite Field Farms in Nixon, Texas, with his wife, Melissa, are mentors and trainers after they went through the BG2BG program and the Mentor Training Program. They bring participants to their farm, to share their story of what it took to get them where they are now and train participants on installing high tunnels, planting cover crops, welding, poultry processing and more.
“The resources learned about the USDA agencies such as NRCS’ conservation technical, and financial assistance to address natural resource concerns on the land, to Farm Service Agency loans, or Risk Management Agency opportunities for crop, specialty, and disaster insurance for veterans and beginning producers is so valuable,” said Havemann.
“NRCS has been a great help,” Havemann said. He describes how their NRCS District Conservationist, Jason Katcsmorak, in Floresville, has worked with them through the years, with each side learning as they go, since they are nontraditional farmers.
“Jason helped us with our farm plan, which is our conservation plan. He helped us a lot in understanding what was already on our land: what grasses grow here, what’s our soil type, what’s the weather like here year-round. And that conservation plan played into our total farm plan,” said Havemann.
Doug and Melissa both share that BG2BG, USDA, Holistic Management International (HMI) and other programs, along with a lot of hard work and dedication, have helped them get to where they are today on their operation, and allows them to educate, advise, and promote the agribusiness development to fellow veterans and beginning farmers and ranchers. They also share how if they had of learned about the USDA, Texas Department of Agriculture and other programs shared in the BG2BG program they would have saved a lot of time, money and back breaking work too.
More Than Agriculture Advice
Texas AgrAbility and BG2BG has been able to provide additional resources needed for veterans who may have a disability and need on-farm modifications, to help them stay in or get into agriculture production. Through the program, participants can obtain mental health support and one-on-one peer mentoring.
Edward Stock was active duty in the U.S. Air Force for 11 years, followed by four years part time Utah Air National Guard where he served with the Utah 151st Air National Guard during Desert Storm and the humanitarian efforts in Somalia. These days, he has a ranch in Wills Point, near Dallas, where he runs cows.
Stock found BG2BG through working with the USDA FSA and doing research.
“It looked like it would be a good fit to help me gain more knowledge of ranching,” said Stock.
He said the business plan portion of the program helped him to understand and define some of the goals he needed to put together in getting the foundation of his ranch set. That was Phase 1 of the program.
Phase 2, he said, provided him with insight of the different resources out there. Now in Phase 3, which involves hands-on training, learning, mentorship, and coaching, Stock shares that the FSA as well as the Farmer Veteran Coalition are great resources that have not only provided great knowledge, but opportunities like the training he’s receiving.
And he’s not keeping what he’s learning to himself.
“I’ve made some good relationships with some young soldiers that are ready to come out and hopefully give them some understanding and knowledge of what to do next,” he said. “I believe I’ve given them some confidence that they can do it and that’s what I’m hoping for is to give back to them as well. That’s what it’s about giving back to the younger generation.”
Stock said you don’t just have to be right out of the military to take advantage of these programs.
“I’ve been a day or two in another career,” he said with a smile. “It doesn’t matter if you’re someone just getting ready to separate or you’ve been out for 30 years, the program is there to help. To give you the opportunity to gain the confidence and knowledge and understanding of what you need to be successful.”
“The other big benefit is the friendships and relationships that are formed as a result of being involved in the program,” Havemann said. “We are here for each other to support, share and help each through the challenges that Mother Nature and life in general throw at us.”
On the Horizon
The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will make it possible for the BG2BG program to continue through 2024 through the Beginning Farmer Rancher Development Program grant.
As partnerships expand and the program grows, more opportunities become available to the participants, who complete the training and for mentors whose mentees graduate from the BG2BG training.
With solutions like this arising, it’s no wonder so many people are getting a jumpstart on life in agriculture. And with just over one percent of the U.S. population being farmers or ranchers, bringing others on board to help feed the rest of the world is, for these veterans this is another call to duty.