Lanon Baccam serves as the Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services (FFAS). Baccam oversees the domestic programs within FFAS, including Farm Service Agency and Risk Management Agency. Baccam also serves as the USDA Military Veterans Agricultural Liaison. Being an Army veteran, he connects veterans with opportunities in the field of agriculture, providing information to returning veterans about services available to them through USDA.
This interview took place at Arlington National Cemetery, where scores of service men and women lay at rest after giving the ultimate sacrifice to protect our country.
“This is what we’re here looking at today. Every one of these headstones represents someone who gave their life for this country, and that to me, is one of the most compelling reasons why I work as hard as I do for our servicemen and veterans.” –Lanon Baccam
Why are military members and veterans a good fit for agriculture?
There is a certain value system that exists in rural America that are some of the same values that members of the military have. Respect for the land, hard work, and really just believing in something bigger than yourself. This drives them to serve. There’s no other group of people out there who are used to hard work, waking up early, staying up late and are mission focused. That’s why they’re a good fit for farming and ranching. It’s a business; there’s a lot of different aspects to it. There’s hands-on hard work, you’re outside. Military members spend a lot of time outdoors, and many of them don’t want to go back and sit at a desk all day, so getting into farming and ranching is a good transition for them, because it’s a more natural fit.
What are some ways you connect service men and women to agriculture?
In February, we signed a MOU with Hiring Our Heroes. Hiring Our Heroes is a program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and Hiring Our Heroes works and coordinates directly with DOD and commanders around the country to host what I believe are the premier employment, or transition summits for veterans.
It’s really difficult to get a hold of these guys when they get out of the military. When I got out, I separated and was never contacted again. Having the ability to reach these guys through transition summits while they’re still serving is critically important for us to be able to continue to help them once they transition back to civilian life.
Are there programs available for soldiers returning home with disabilities?
We know there are a certain percentage of soldiers, service members and veterans who are experiencing disabilities; visible and invisible. Anecdotally, we know that farming and ranching is helping them, truly helping them.
There is therapeutic benefit to farming and ranching because these service members are getting out of the house, getting in to the ground, getting their hands dirty and finding a new purpose. They served this country admirably by protecting it, now they can continue their service by providing for it through agriculture.
As for a specific program, USDA funds an organization called AgrAbility. AgrAbility has been in service for decades, and they are an organization that helps people get or stay in farming and ranching if they have physical disabilities.
Do you have a veteran success story that benefitted from USDA programs?
In the broad sense, there’s been over 466 million dollars in farm loans to veterans since 2009. That’s almost 4,000 service men and women we’ve helped in seven years.
More specifically, there is a Marine veteran in California who served three tours in Iraq. He came back and started a produce farm operation which he sells at a local market. He became successful enough to hire more Marine veterans to come work for him and learn his system, so they can branch off and do it on their own. It’s become more of a training ground. He’s utilized multiple USDA programs such as Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and I’m sure others as well.
What is the best part of your job, in your opinion?
Having spent time in the Army myself and having gone through this process already, it makes me feel good to know that I’m helping my brothers and sisters in arms. We are helping them find their next step, because it can be scary.
A lot of these folks, all they know professionally is the military. Branching out and stepping into the civilian workforce is really something they haven’t done before, and it’s difficult for them to even know where to start. In the military you’ve got your comradery with your squad mates and everyone else you work with; you’ve got somebody there who’s got your back. They’re afraid when they get out of the military they’re going to lose that. We’re showing them that’s not the case; at USDA, we’re going to be there every step of the way.
Any last minute thoughts?
At USDA, we use all our tools and resources and programs to try to make a difference in the lives of veterans. I try to make them understand that at USDA, we’re going to be there every step along the way to help them achieve their dreams of farming and ranching, and help them identify what’s available in the agricultural industry.
For more information on USDA programs available to veterans, please visit usda.gov/veterans.