Texas AgrAbility, Battleground to Breaking Ground, more assist veterans in agriculture
The Texas A&M University System has a long-standing tradition of supporting active duty and veteran military personnel. That support for military service members, particularly military veterans interested in starting an agriculture-related business, continues through Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Serviceprograms designed to assist them in reaching their after-service goals.
Stephen Green, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension specialist and head of the agency’s Family and Community Health unit, said many veterans are pursuing self-employment and turning to agricultural enterprises to accomplish their after-service goals.
“For many veterans, farming and ranching has become a highly sought-after career, offering self-sustainability, therapeutic healing, meaningful and flexible self-employment, continued service and other benefits,” he said.
But some military veterans struggle with unemployment in rural farming areas and may have difficulty transitioning into civilian life, Green noted.
“AgriLife Extension is committed to providing high-quality educational programs and services to current and former military families,” he said. “These programs reach thousands of active duty service members, veterans and family caregivers of wounded service members annually.
“They improve the quality of life for military families and provide opportunities to learn skills to help them transition from the battlefield into careers in farming and ranching. It is an honor for us to be able to provide these programs and services and look forward to continuing to expand our programs for military families in the future.”
Texas AgrAbility helps injured, disabled vets remain in agriculture
The Texas AgrAbility program provides veterans and others with disabilities, chronic health conditions and functional limitations the ability to start or remain engaged in production agriculture. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)
Rick Peterson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension specialist and director of the agency’s Texas AgrAbility project, said the project provides services to individuals with disabilities, chronic health conditions and functional limitations to start or stay engaged in production agriculture.
The project is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, with additional support from the USDA’s Risk Management Agency and the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.
“A number of the people we assist through this program are military veterans, some of whom have been injured while serving their country,” Peterson said. “Texas AgrAbility staff members have expertise in fields ranging from production agriculture to occupational therapy, agricultural engineering and disability services.”
Makenzie McLaurin, AgriLife Extension program coordinator for Texas AgrAbility, said program personnel make site visits and provide recommendations for equipment adaptation, home or work modifications or any additional adaptive equipment that may be needed for a farm or ranch operation.
“One of the goals of the project is to connect military veteran farmers and ranchers with service providers who can assist them through training, as well as provide them with the information, resources and technical assistance needed for their specific agricultural operation,” she said.
Texas AgrAbility client Chris Pogue is a Navy veteran whose deployments included northern Africa and Iraq. During his service, he sustained injuries, including back and traumatic brain injuries. After military service, he and his wife Theda, also a Navy veteran, began GP Ranch — a farm and ranch combination in Sulphur Springs. They produce bison, poultry and pigs, plus grow a variety of vegetables.
“AgrAbility did an on-site assessment of Mr. Pogue’s agricultural operation,” McLaurin said. “We recommended assistive equipment and task modifications to help him be more independent and successful on his farm. Some of the equipment recommendations were a safer setup for working bison, automatic barn door openers, feeding aids and a hoist for lifting heavy equipment in his shop.”
Navy veteran Chris Pogue of GP Ranch gets ready to spread feed by hand from a 50-pound bag. A preloaded, high-capacity feeder will help him save time and physical effort. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Makenzie McLaurin)
Pogue said there had been many changes in agricultural technology and delivery systems in the more than two decades that had passed since he had worked on a farm.
“AgrAbility and its partnering agencies helped me catch up and find more current technology and methods to benefit my operation,” he said. “Some changes they recommended will make a big difference to me physically. For example, right now it takes two people and a lot of time and effort to open our large barn doors. And having an automatic prefilled feeder that can distribute the exact amount of feed will save both time and physical strain.”
McLaurin said AgrAbility will be collaborating with the Texas Workforce Commission’s Vocational Rehabilitation Service to get Pogue the needed equipment.
Battleground to Breaking Ground helps vets start agricultural businesses
In 2016, Texas AgrAbility and program partners received an additional USDA-NIFA grant to develop the Battleground to Breaking Ground program focused on military veterans and active-duty military farmers and ranchers.
“The Battleground to Breaking Ground program provides support to help military veterans start or expand their production agriculture businesses,” said Erin Kimbrough, AgriLife Extension program manager, College Station. Kimbrough and her husband, a Marine Corps veteran and chapter president of the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Texas, are also beginning ranchers.
She said the program works with other public and private organizations to reach returning military veterans with ground-up agribusiness training, business planning, financing options, face-to-face expert mentoring, veteran transition assistance, agricultural production training and more.
“The program’s main goals are to enhance farmer and rancher sustainability and increase the number of military veteran-owned farms and ranches,” she said.
Kimbrough said over the past three years dozens of Battleground to Breaking Ground workshops have been held throughout the state, providing education, resources, technical assistance and experiential training to over 1,000 beginning farmers and ranchers – more than 70% of them either active duty or military veterans.
She said Battleground to Breaking Ground has now expanded into a year-long, three-phrase program consisting of workshop or online training focusing on the business aspect of farming and ranching, online training focusing on in-person mentorships, agricultural production and hands-on experiential training in their chosen area of agriculture.
“Successful graduates of the year-long program have the option of accessing leased land, equipment and established markets to start or expand their operations,” she said.
Participants in a Produce Safety Training for Military Veterans workshop held at Doug Havemann’s Mesquite Field Farm in Nixon as part of the Battleground to Breaking Ground program. (Photo courtesy Doug Havemann)
Doug Havemann, an Army veteran, has served as a mentor for other military veterans through the Battleground to Breaking Ground program for the past six years. He and his wife Melissa operate Mesquite Field Farm in Nixon – a 20-acre regenerative farm where they produce grass-fed beef, pastured poultry, turkeys and vegetables.
“There’s nobody better than a (current or former military person) to be a farmer,” he said. “They are used to long hours and hard work. You have to be tough to succeed in agriculture.”
However, Havemann said, not all military people interested in agriculture “want to do agriculture the same way.”
“We ask them what they want and what type of training they need, then bring in the appropriate people to train them,” he said. “Some of the most requested training topics include high-tunnel production, poultry production, grass-fed beef production, no-till pasture management, rotational grazing and livestock watering.”
Matthew Demmer, a Battleground to Breaking Ground project participant and Navy veteran, owns the Crown D Ranch in Floresville and has Havemann as a mentor.
“We have grass-fed beef and hope to expand into sheep,” Demmer said. “I knew I wanted to go into agriculture after military service but didn’t have any experience. The Battleground to Breaking Ground program helped me learn about the ag industry as well as find resources and showed me the importance of having a business plan.
“The program also helped me with my goals so the operation could be financially stable and environmentally sustainable. It got me going in the right direction and linked me with Doug and others who had the same high degree of interest in agriculture as I did.”
Demmer said through the program he has also participated in hands-on programs at Havemann’s farm on chicken processing, cover crops, composting and grant writing. He said in the future he hopes to provide such onsite, hands-on training at his own farm to assist other beginning veteran ranchers.
The Battleground to Breaking Ground project also offers supplemental educational opportunities such as the Produce Food Safety Training for Military Veterans and an Introduction to Beekeeping program offered at no charge to military veterans and their immediate family.
Streamlining veteran access to agricultural experience, Farm Service Agency loans
The Battleground to Breaking Ground project has continued to grow, with the USDA Farm Service Agency providing funding in 2018 to develop the Veteran Farmer Streamlined Eligibility Program for increasing military veteran access to USDA-FSA loans.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and a veteran plant blackberry shrubs during a program to introduce the Veteran Farmer Streamlined Eligibility Program. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Sarah Pyatt)
“The goal is to allow military veterans going through the Battleground to Breaking Ground program to receive a waiver on the three years of industry experience required for an FSA Farm Ownership Microloan or FSA Partnership Loan,” Kimbrough said.
This year, the project has partnered with the Compatible Lands Foundation to expand the hands-on training portion of the program by developing additional training sites at Mesquite Field Farm and the Farmer’s Education and Training Center in Gatesville.
“Hands-on training opportunities will be offered each month at both locations,” Kimbrough said. “Some of the training topics will be basic livestock production, vegetable production and beekeeping. There will be hands-on training related to beef cattle, sheep and vegetable production, as well as grazing and land-use planning and how to incorporate cover crops.”
She said the Battleground to Breaking Ground project also works with the U.S. Department of Defense SkillBridge program, helping service members gain valuable civilian work experience through specific industry training, apprenticeships or internships during the last 180 days of service.
“We have successfully assisted service members to participate in their Career Skills Program serving members of the Army and Air Force,” Kimbrough said. “This has allowed qualified military members to secure an internship on a farm for their last 180 days of separation from the military.”
AgriLife Extension Military Program helps service members meet life’s challenges
“Through the Family and Community Health unit’s Texas Military Program, we focus on providing informational and educational programs to assist military families in facing some of life’s more difficult challenges,” said Rachel Brauner, family and community health program coordinator, College Station.
Representatives of various military branches sign proclamation at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, committing to increase suicide awareness and prevention throughout Joint Base San Antonio and other military installations. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Paul Schattenberg)
Brauner said AgriLife personnel participate in the Military Families Learning Network – Military Caregiving, which provides educational and professional development opportunities through the Department of Defense for professionals working with caregivers in military families.
“We are also involved in the Army Substance Abuse Program that provides drug and alcohol abuse prevention education for active duty and retired military personnel and their families at Joint Base San Antonio,” Brauner said. “We are also involved in suicide awareness and prevention efforts there.”
Brauner said AgriLife Extension employees work on-site at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to provide information and assistance to active duty and retired military as well as civilian personnel at the base.
“To my knowledge, we are the only agency with the nation’s land-grant cooperative extension system that has personnel on-site at a military installation to help address these challenges.”
AUSTIN, Texas — For some veterans, transitioning from life in the military to life back at home can be difficult, discouraging and even scary. One of the groups aiming to make that transition a little easier is the Farmer Veteran Coalition.
The coalition is a nonprofit that aims to help veterans embark on various careers in agriculture. It was founded by first-generation farmer Michael O’Gorman about 10 years ago. Both his father and son served in the military. He said being able to help veterans find jobs hit close to home.
“Agriculture was good to me and I thought it would be a good idea to help some men and women returning home from Afghanistan to get them started in agriculture,” O’Gorman said. “The veterans are actually attracted to the difficulty of becoming farmers and it’s just been really great fit.”
O’ Gorman said that when the coalition first started, there were only nine members. It currently has grown to about 16,400 members, with the biggest number being from Texas at 1,400 members.
“We hear every day the gratitude from the veterans for our help,” O’Gorman said. “They were looking for something meaningful and purposeful out of the military, and they were looking for a career with that same sense of purpose and gave them the freedom to be outdoors.”
Army veteran and founder of Austin’s Ranger Cattle, Josh Eilers, is one of those veterans the coalition has helped.
“We’re [Ranger Cattle] a farm-to-table beef operation over in East Austin. We do everything from breeding the cattle to distributing the beef to local restaurants,” Eilers said. “We were founded in 2010 right as I got out of the Army, and I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I kind of stumbled across Wagyu beef and thought, ‘Hey maybe I can make some money out of this.'”
From there, Eilers bought a herd of cattle and was prepared to get started. That’s when the Farmer Veteran Coalition approached him asking what they could do to help. The coalition was able to help with the funding to get a new squeeze chute for his cattle.
“It was the first time in my life that a nonprofit approached me,” said Eilers. “If you’re in the military and thinking about getting out, whether you know what you want to do, reach out to the Farmer Veteran’s Coalition. They’ll put you in the right direction.”
Eilers said he served with the First Ranger Battalion and was deployed three times to Iraq and once to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2010. The veteran later went on to graduate from the University of Texas in December of 2015.
He explained how getting into agriculture was able to reignite some of the pride and sense of belonging he felt while he was in the military.
“When you’re a ranger in the United States military top-tier unit, and you’re really respected and kind of looked highly upon and then get out, all of a sudden it’s missing,” Eilers explained. “When I was in the military I took an immense amount of pride that ‘Eilers’ was on my uniform and a flag was on my shoulder and I loved every minute of that. But when you leave the military, you no longer have that respect and I think agriculture has given me an avenue to get that back.”
If you happen to dine at a downtown Austin restaurant soon, keep an eye out for menu items that read “Farm-to-Table.” Eilers said there’s a good chance that beef may be coming from Ranger Cattle.
“If it says ‘Farm-to-Table’ on the menu, you should definitely ask those waiters where the beef coming from. If it says ‘Ranger Cattle,’ you should take pride in knowing you’re helping a veteran and helping him transition,” Eilers said. “In the military, you’re under constant pressure to accomplish your mission. Well, that doesn’t change. Now we’re under constant pressure to deliver our product and deliver a really high-end product that will make chefs in the community happy.”
Courtesy of Capital Farm Credit (View the original story here)
Josh Eilers, the 27-year-old owner of Ranger Cattle in Austin, Texas, is not your typical beginning cattle producer. He didn’t follow a traditional route to enter the beef industry, either.
He wasn’t born into the cattle business, although he nurtured boyhood dreams of becoming a cowboy. He did not grow up on a farm or ranch. And he didn’t study agriculture in high school or college.
But as a former U.S. Army Ranger who served three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, earning a Purple Heart for injuries sustained during combat, Eilers brings something special to the cattle business — the can-do spirit he learned in the military.
“The Army used to have a slogan, ‘Be all that you can be.’ I kind of took that to heart,” Eilers says. “I have always felt that if you are going to do something, do it right and in the best possible way.”
With Ranger Cattle, a Wagyu seedstock and ranch-to-restaurant beef operation he started in 2011 while attending college, he is doing just that.
GETTING INTO CATTLE
The story of Ranger Cattle, as Eilers tells it, begins in a college bar near the University of Texas at Austin (UT), which offers just about every academic program except agriculture.
In 2010, he left the military and returned to Texas. Two weeks later, he was a full-time student at UT majoring in biology.
“I’d managed to save some money because most of the time I was deployed or training to be deployed,” he recalls. Following his first semester, however, he saw his bank balance shrinking and realized he needed to invest his hard-earned money. Then one night he stumbled upon a potential business opportunity.
“Ironically, I was in a bar, and I overheard a guy bragging to a pretty girl that he’d just spent $100 on a Wagyu steak,” Eilers recalls. “I didn’t know that a steak could cost that much, but I decided that if you could raise cattle that are worth that much money, that’s what I wanted to do.”
WHY NOT WAGYU?
Eilers went home and researched Wagyu cattle, a Japanese breed that earns premiums for its finely marbled meat. Through an Internet search, he discovered local Wagyu breeder Larry Beard, who would become one of his mentors and supporters. Within a few days, Eilers had purchased 16 Wagyu bred heifers from Beard, and was grazing them at his mother’s small central Texas horse farm.
When the cattle outgrew the horse pasture, Beard and his wife gave Eilers their “military discount” on a pasture lease on the eastern edge of Austin, he says. Beard also introduced Eilers to a neighbor, Bubba Kay, one of the first and best-known Wagyu breeders in the United States.
“Mr. Kay has been my biggest mentor. He has literally taught me everything from synchronization protocols to how to dehorn a calf, to how to analyze pedigrees and what to look for in bloodlines,” Eilers says.
It’s a role that the veteran cattleman enjoys.
“I’m just glad to see a youngster in the business,” Kay says. “When we go to cattle meetings, most of the people there are between 65 and 75. We need young people coming into the cattle business.”
Meanwhile, Eilers was taking genetics courses at UT, and realized that what he was learning in the classroom about genomic profiling and embryo transfer technology could be applied to his own cattle herd. He soon purchased a full-blood Wagyu cow so that he could transfer embryos from her to his other cows.
BECOMING AN ENTREPRENEUR
Equally helpful was an entrepreneurship course he took in his senior year.
“I knew nothing about business, and this was exactly what I needed,” Eilers admits. The course required that students work together on an actual business case, and his group chose to study Ranger Cattle.
“It was like I had four interns working for me for a semester,” Eilers says. Oftentimes, their creativity and curiosity surpassed his.
Up to this point, he’d been selling his calves into the food chain. With his classmates’ encouragement, he decided to try marketing the cattle to restaurants that promote locally sourced foods. One student helped Eilers develop a website, where he now takes online orders for Wagyu beef.
They also researched alternative feed sources that could reduce Eilers’ expenses, and discovered that spent grain, a by-product of Austin’s vibrant craft beer industry, could be a cost-effective feed. Their search led them to Independence Brewing Co., which now gives Eilers spent grain twice a week, saving him $400 a month in feed bills.
“That’s where the college kids were helpful,” Eilers says. “They’re like toddlers — they don’t care about getting (their ideas) shot down.”
As part of the entrepreneurship class, Eilers was required to present his business model to a group of actual investors. They recommended that he grow the company and secure outside financing.
Eilers approached three commercial banks for a loan, but was turned down because he could not produce three years of taxable income statements, as he was going to college on the GI bill.
“But I already had deals with restaurants,” he says.
FINDING GOOD FINANCING
Fortunately, Beard referred him to Mark Rutledge, credit office president–Austin with Capital Farm Credit.
“Mark asked me what I wanted to do with the cattle. ‘To sell direct to restaurants, to cut out the middleman,’ I told him,” Eilers says. “I wanted to raise them on Austin grass, feed them Austin grass, have them processed here and sell them to Austin restaurants.”
Rutledge recognized the equity that Eilers had built in his herd and agreed to work with him. With a Capital Farm Credit operating loan, Eilers was able to expand the herd and purchase finished cattle so he could fulfill his commitment to restaurants.
“We cannot thank men like Joshua Eilers enough,” Rutledge says. “He put his life on the line on multiple tours in the Middle East to further the interests of and protect the United States. It is our privilege to partner with him to help build Ranger Cattle and produce his unique beef product.”
RANCH TO RESTAURANTS
Ranger Cattle’s Wagyu beef is currently on the menu at five Austin restaurants — Barley Swine, Hasler Brothers Steakhouse, Hill Country Galleria Restaurant, Odd Duck and Posse East. Eilers also markets his beef at a local farmers market west of Austin, which allows him to promote his product one-on-one to consumers. Even his vendors and customers have been helpful. The co-owner of Posse East, a popular university-area burger joint, recommended that he raise his retail beef prices, and a farmers market customer gave him a feed trough.
Now with 65 momma cows, nearly all of them fullbloods, Eilers says he is pushing the genetic envelope, with a long-term goal of breeding cattle that predictably will yield Prime-grade carcasses. He works with an embryologist and plans to transplant 35 embryos this year. To help with breeding decisions, he DNA-tests his calves and sends them to the Genetic Development Center for feeding efficiency studies and ultrasound tests to measure rib-eye size. He also plans to expand his marketing efforts next year by involving high school culinary arts students in beef cooking demonstrations at farmers markets and awarding scholarships.
As for the future, Eilers says, “I’m in this for the long haul.
“I’m the only guy I know who has overcome the barriers of entry into the livestock industry without any prior experience, and built up a cattle company that might actually be successful,” he says. “If Ranger Cattle is successful in the long term, it will be in large part due to Bubba Kay and other members of the community who have helped me out so much.”