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Will Kentucky's Veterans be the Next Generation of Farmers?

For several years military veteran Mike Lewis has been a farmer in Kentucky. But his experience with his younger brother, a fellow veteran, has turned him into an advocate for both. Lewis’s brother returned to civilian life after he was injured in Afghanistan and went to work on Mike’s farm. Lewis says his brother seemed to benefit from the work he was doing.

“Over a relatively quick time I started seeing a really positive transformation in the way he was when he first came to what he had become.”

Lewis says the changes he saw in his brother encouraged him to help other returning veterans get into farming. Lewis now works with groups like the Farming Veteran Coalition, which assists veterans wanting to get into farming, and Grow Appalachia, which helps out local farmers around the Appalachian Region. He says the therapeutic effect farming had on his brother may not be typical, but he says another effect – this one undeniable – is that it gives a veteran a job. And Lewis says veterans don’t just feel the impact, their communities do as well. He says many veterans were part of the rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and have seen the positive changes that come when people can provide for themselves.

“I think that’s one of the reasons that veterans get so excited and understand this concept. It’s about building community and it’s about restoring our country.”

Lewis says several groups that share his goal have come together to support him. One of those groups is the Community Farm Alliance. CFA member Carolyn Gahn says their group can meet a lot of new farmers’ needs.

“We’ve done some research on beginning farmers and we’ve identified five things we kind of think all beginning farmers need, including veterans and other people who are maybe transitioning to farming as a second career.”

Gahn says their network of established farmers helps newer ones find land, capital, and markets for their goods. She says they’ll provide veterans with business training and technical assistance, as well as some of the equipment they’ll need to get started. They’ll also get some assistance from Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. Comer says the state Ag Department is set to announce two new veteran focused programs at the end of January. He says one of those is the Homegrown by Heroes program.

“And what that’s gonna do is, it’s a labeling program which will allow the farmers who have served in the military to have the ability to distinguish their Ag products at the point of sale.”

Comer says they’re also starting a “Jobs for Vets” program that will take veterans looking for work and set them up with farmers wanting to hire them. And he says they wouldn’t just be limited to farming. The KDA database will include jobs for veterans in every sector of agriculture. Comer says those programs will kick off January 22nd, but they’re already generating a lot of interest.

“We’ve already received inquiries from other states wanting to copy this program so I think this is something that we’re starting in the Department of Agriculture that will be a national model.”

Farming Veteran Coalition member Mike Lewis says the most impressive part of that model is the number of agencies that are working together to help the veterans. He says the Department of Agriculture, University of Kentucky, Community Farm Alliance, and Farming Veteran Coalition all have a big part to play in making these programs successful.

“It’s not very often that you get all these groups that don’t usually see eye to eye, coming together to work together. So it’s been really, really exciting and sort of invigorating for me… refreshing.”

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer says Lewis played a big role in bringing attention to the programs and getting others involved. Comer says they want to recognize those efforts, so when the programs start in January the first Homegrown by Heroes stickers in Kentucky will be on products from Mike Lewis’ Madison County farm.

Shelly Baskin works in MSU's Office of Regional Outreach and is a graduate student in Occupational Safety and Health. A roustabout from Memphis, Tennessee, Shelly first found his way into WKMS through the newsroom back in 2011 through luck, charm and force of will. Though he left news for another position, he still enjoys working on independent radio projects and volunteering for the station. He’s an avid disc golfer and occasional real golfer and is terrible at both. A lover of all things musical, Shelly is always ready to hear something new and unique.
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