Government Partners Panel at the first National Farmer Veteran Stakeholders Conference
(L-R) Karis Gutter, Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services (FFAS), newly appointed Military Veterans Agricultural Liaison; Keith Kelly, Assistant to the Secretary, Veterans Employment and Training Services (VETS), Department of Labor; Jaime Wood, Director for Policy and Engagement, Office of Veterans Business Development (OVBD), Small Business Administration. Not shown: Scott Silvay, Employment Coordinator at the Iowa VA, and moderator Dr. Richard Mestas, Special Advisor to FVC Board of Directors.
An historic announcement from the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, a ground-breaking discussion between five departments of the Federal Government and a palpable enthusiasm among the 200 people in attendance marked the first National Farmer Veteran Stakeholders Conference, held in Des Moines, Iowa last weekend and sponsored by FVC and the Agricultural Law Center of Drake University.
“In my sixty-two years, it was the most powerful congregation I have been part of,” said James Brady, Air Force veteran and Board member of Louisiana Association of Cooperatives. The sentiment was echoed by many as speakers gave first-hand accounts of the healing, sense of purpose and career opportunities that returning veterans were finding on America’s farms.
USDA Deputy Agriculture Secretary Krysta Harden used her keynote address to name fellow conference attendee Karis Gutter the first Military Veteran Agricultural Liaison at the USDA.
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture – Krysta Harden
“Many of America’s veterans come from our rural communities, and are often drawn back to the land upon returning to civilian life,” said Deputy Secretary Harden. “Veterans are key to building our future generation of farmers, land stewards and conservationists. USDA already has a number of initiatives to help veterans find meaningful work in agriculture upon returning home, but this new position will help coordinate our efforts and make programs easier to navigate. I look forward to Karis’ leadership as we continue to support America’s heroes.”
Gutter, a native of Terry, Mississippi (pop. 1,099), began his career in public service as an enlisted United States Marine Corp Reservist. Gutter served as a Corporal in the Marine Corps and a communications and field radio operator, participating in humanitarian relief in support of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina.
“Serving as USDA’s first Military Veterans Agricultural Liaison is a great honor,” said Gutter. “As a Marine, I know military veterans have unique skills, training and perspective. My job is to make sure military veterans have full access to USDA’s resources and services to help them succeed in civilian life.”
The USDA Military Veteran Agriculture Liaison, which reports directly to the Office of the Secretary, is a new position created by the 2014 Farm Bill.
Joining Gutter at the Plenary the next day were representatives of four other Departments of the Federal Government. Keith Kelly, Assistant to the Secretary of Labor, oversees Veterans Employment and Training Services (VETS). “Our main goal is to get veterans jobs,” said Kelly, a Vietnam veteran and past Secretary of Agriculture in two states: Montana and Arizona. “We don’t have a specific program for farmers and ranchers,” he said, but noted that the conference, bringing everyone together for the first time, could change that.
Jaime Wood, Army veteran and Director for Policy and Engagement for the Office of Veterans Business Development (OVBD) at the Small Business Administration (SBA) agreed. “Veterans are 45% more likely to be self-employed than the general population. The resources from the SBA can help veterans succeed in self-employment.” She, too, looked forward to what the new collaborations could bring.
(L-R) James Brady, Air Force Veteran and Board Member of the Louisiana Association of Cooperatives, and Dr. Walter A. Hill, Provost of Tuskegee University, at the Conference reception. Brady said of the conference: “In my sixty-two years, it was the most powerful congregation I have been part of.”
Scott Silvay, Employment Coordinator at the Iowa VA and a disabled Army veteran, described how his local office connects veterans with education, job training, and apprenticeship programs. When it comes to farm ownership, however, Silvay admitted that “the VA is not adept and geared toward farming from a self-owned perspective. This is why we need the USDA liaison role to ensure that veterans’ needs are being met across all departments.”
Dr. Richard “Rick” Mestas led the panel. Dr. Mestas serves as Program Manager at the National Intelligence University, but spoke only in the capacity of his long-time role as Advisor to the Board of Directors of FVC. Mestas, whose career has spanned both military (Army) and education, pushed the panelists for ways they could cooperate across their departments to support rural veterans and a new generation of farmers, both issues critical to our national security.
Other keynote speakers included General Charlie Kruse, past President of the Missouri Farm Bureau and Past Secretary of Agriculture of Missouri; Brigadier General Stanley Flemming, DO, Ambassador to the US Army Reserves and current Councilmember, Pierce County, WA; and Ben Shaffar, Director of Business Development, Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and the developer of the Homegrown by Heroes label. The generals both sit on FVC’s Board of Directors.
The most moving talks came from military veterans involved first hand in the transition to agriculture. Leaders of four organizations – Colin Archipley (USMC), Veterans Sustainable Agricultural Training (CA); Chris Brown (USMC), Growing Veterans (WA); Mike Lewis, Growing Warriors (KY); and James McCormick, Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture (WV) – gave compelling testimony about how their programs change, and in some cases, save lives.