Veterans find work opportunities in agriculture
Rhonda Smith grew up on a farm but left to become a nurse in the U.S. Air Force.
After she left the service, she met the man who would become her husband – and who also shared a background and interest in farming. The two settled in Blair County and started a small farm, or farmette, in 2004 – mostly growing produce and raising lambs and chicken.
While Smith now works full-time as an operations director for a nonprofit, she is just as focused on her farm, and started a tea business called The Skirted Soldier that raises money to support women veterans.
Smith, who shared her story at an event during this year’s Pennsylvania Farm Show, is one of a growing number of adults with nontraditional career paths, like veterans, who are entering the agricultural workforce.
Within the next 10 years, there will be 75,000 new and replacement job openings in agriculture and the food industry across Pennsylvania, according to an estimate by the state Department of Agriculture.
The shortage is largely due to an aging workforce, as well as a lack of awareness of opportunities in the field, according to the department.
Some observers have found that skills learned in the military can be applied to farming, and they hope to draw more former soldiers into agriculture.
“It’s a perfect fit for a veteran,” said Smith. Veterans gain qualities through their service, like loyalty, integrity, problem-solving and hard work, which can transfer to careers in agriculture, Smith explained.
“Their qualities are similar to farming, and it makes sense,” she said.
After joining the Air Force, Smith started as a certified surgical technologist. The Clearfield County native soon advanced to become a trauma nurse while stationed in Germany at a trauma facility. She and her team also trained troops in other countries, like Uzbekistan and Cameroon, to set up and operate field hospitals and surgical units.
Smith was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 2001 and returned to the U.S., where she worked as a nurse in a doctor’s office in Clearfield County, as the advanced medical training she received in the military was not recognized by the state.
Eventually, Smith attained a master’s degree in business management from the University of Maryland, and went to work for Family Services Inc. – a Blair County nonprofit that serves vulnerable populations like victims of abuse and people experiencing homelessness.
She and her husband, Dan, who also is an Air Force veteran and works full time as an air traffic controller, farm just under four acres near Altoona. They’re committed to sustainable farming and start all their produce by seed in a greenhouse Dan built with his late father.
“We started expanding from composting to gardening to livestock. Every year we make an addition, and we’re looking at mushrooms this year,” she said.
In early 2018, Smith launched a tea business called The Skirted Soldier. She gives 10 percent of its revenue annually to organizations that support veterans, like the Pennsylvania Veteran Farmer Project, otherwise known as Troops to Tractors, which connects veterans to resources, mentorships and agricultural employers under the GI Bill.
The other 90 percent of the revenue goes to sustaining business operations.
She works with other local women veterans to source herbs like lavender and chamomile, which are then dried, mixed, packed and shipped by Smith, her husband and their daughter. The loose-leaf teas are given military terms, like SNAFU, Green Beret, At Ease, Basic Training and more.
The tea can be purchased online or in retail locations like coffee shops and organic food markets in 11 states.
Smith also manufactures value-added products like jellies, jam and wine. But instead of selling her goods for profit, she prefers to give them away.
“Acts of service are what we’re about. We feel better just sharing our goods and watching other people enjoy them,” she said.
Another veteran-turned-farmer is Robert H. Mowery, who farms 20 acres of land in Moon Township, Allegheny County. Mowery spent eight years in the U.S. Navy Reserves as an intelligence and cyber specialist.
He raises heritage breeds, or traditional livestock breeds that were kept by America’s forefathers but have since declined as a result of industrial farming and its focus on single breeds.
Mowery raises Kune Kune pigs, Jacob sheep, Rhode Island Red chickens and Khaki Campbell ducks, which are pasture-raised and organic.
The animals are listed on a conservation priority database curated by The Livestock Conservancy, a North Carolina-based nonprofit founded in the late 1970s to protect over 150 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction.
Mowery sells meat to restaurants around Pittsburgh under his business name Forever Heart Farm LLC.
In addition to farming, Mowery works full time in internet security to supplement the income from his farming business.
He used a VA loan to finance his 20-acre property, after spending some time homesteading, or farming on five acres or less.
He also uses his tech skills to dabble in agritech, or “mini-computers” that are programmed to monitor things like air temperature, air oxygenation and soil composition in greenhouses, as well as motion sensors.
More than just milking cows
Though opportunities in agriculture are plentiful at every skill level, it’s challenging to get the word out.
Harrisburg-based public radio broadcaster WITF hosted a “Smart Talk” program at the Farm Show on Jan. 8, where a panel of industry experts examined challenges in the agriculture workforce.
“When you think of the culture of agriculture, for a long time … the culture has meant the family farm. When [young people] don’t want to go back to the family farm … they need to recognize that opportunities in agriculture may not be what they were 15 or 20 years ago,” said panelist Robert Clark, executive director of the new Commission for Agricultural Education Excellence.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration established the commission in late 2018 under the state departments of Agriculture and Education to, among other goals, establish a statewide agriculture curriculum for public schools to introduce younger students to farming concepts.
It can be hard to connect a student who wasn’t born on a farm – and who has an interest in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math – to a career in agriculture.
Strong STEM skills are needed to fill all levels of the agriculture workforce, according to Scott Sheely, a special assistant to the workforce development division in the state Department of Agriculture, and former director of both the Lancaster County workforce investment board and the Lancaster County agriculture council.
The workforce is like a pyramid, Sheely explained. At the first level are professionals who have studied agriculture in college and work as engineers, scientists, large-animal veterinarians and managers.
The second level of the workforce includes highly trained, technical roles like vet techs, GPS programmers and tractor programmers.
“The people that fix tractors, some of the big machines have six or seven onboard computers that they use. When something stops, it has to be reprogrammed and the technician has to do that,” Sheely said. “The tractors have GPS, and many tractors now don’t necessarily need a driver. So who is going to do that work and how are we going to train them?”
Where once a technician used a tool box to fix a farming machine, now he or she uses a computer, Sheely explained.
The bottom layer of the pyramid is the production workforce, or those who do manual work on a farm, or work in packaging houses, Sheely said.
Food-batch makers also work in this segment.
“It’s basically a chef who deals with ingredients in big bags instead of teaspoons, and does the mixing,” Sheely said.
Sheely also pointed out that the compensation for the bottom segment of the workforce isn’t bad, either.
“People who pick apples in South Central PA are making $18 an hour. It could be better, but that’s way above minimum wage,” he said, adding, “We have to get the word out about ag careers.”
In addition to developing a statewide agriculture education, staff from the state departments of Agriculture and Education also hope to teach about agriculture in informal settings, as well, through efforts to recruit veterans, retirees and people looking for second careers.
“We need folks, and it will come in a variety of ways. We need to make sure informal education is just as important in our priorities,” Clark said.
“You put them out to close chicken doors. You can automate things so you can get it off your checklist,” Mowery said.
Active in more ways than one
Chad McCarthy serves on active duty in the Army National Guard, based in Newark, New Jersey, but opened a nonprofit farm in Monroe County.
The nonprofit is called Urban Ark Conservation and focuses on conservation and agritherapy for veterans.
Like Mowery, McCarthy raises heritage breeds.
“You get into different pigs; and no one mixed back then, each one has its own thing. One was made for lard, one was made for ham, one was made for bacon. And you don’t know that until you taste them,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy also plans to open an aquaponics greenhouse in March, which will allow for year-round production of plants and fish.
Aquaponics is a type of farming where soilless plants are grown and fish are raised in a single pool of water. The fish waste is a food source for the plants, and the plants naturally filter the water – forming a symbiotic relationship.
The agritherapy portion of his nonprofit developed naturally as fellow veteran friends visited his farm to help him “set things up.”
McCarthy, who completed a tour in Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013, hopes to hold on-site workshops for veterans suffering from PTSD in the future.
McCarthy is self-financing the farm with his income from the Army, and also has been writing grant proposals with the hope of gaining some funding. He also uses donations.
For now, veterans come by to hang out with the animals and help out around the farm.
“Veterans just give me a call and if I’m not doing something, I’ll say just come over,” McCarthy said.