Agriculture: Efforts continue to connect veterans, Virginia farmers to build food security, opportunity

A soybean field in Pungo. [File/The Princess Anne Independent News]

A gathering called American Farmer tonight in Hampton will benefit the Virginia chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which aims to link veterans and the agriculture industry to get them farming.

The tribute to farmers will include music, information and products from veterans who farm, and a screening of the short documentary Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields, which aims to build the number of veterans entering sustainable agriculture. The award-winning film tells stories of combat veterans who returned home and found farming.

The coalition, too, represents the potential of linking two people who have completed military service and have skills that could benefit the agricultural field. The issue has had national attention. Veterans were recognized in the 2014 Farm Bill as an underserved population, giving greater access to resources for farming, ranching and forestry. 

 “That has put them toward the front of the line for programs, such as beginning farmer and rancher programs,” said Dulanie Ellis, director of Ground Operations. The California filmmaker was reached by telephone.

“Food and farming has become a huge movement in the U.S.,” Ellis said. “I like to say to people once you have a real tomato, there’s no going back to those pink rocks we get at the supermarket. Once you’ve had good local food you want more of it.”

Veterans can be a greater part of that movement, ensuring food production continues into the future.

In the screening, there is a hope that Hampton Roads communities, including areas with strong agricultural industries and military connections, will become involved with the state chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. 

John Fant, a retired Army officer who farms in Grayson County, Va., also serves as a county supervisor there, and he is the chairperson of the Virginia chapter of the coalition. The organization has a mission to mobilize Virginia veterans to farm and feed the nation they have served.

“If you buy into the idea that food security is part of national security, then it makes sense,” he said in a telephone interview. 

Fant noted that veterans can help bring new blood to an industry that has seen the average age of farmers grow while adding to the number of people doing the work of ensuring access to safe food.

“I think the real future of agriculture lies with the younger generation who has done a tour and brings a lot of energy and physical fitness to the field,” he said.

For veterans, farming may not be a field they consider after leaving military service, but skills of military life cross over, he said. There also are resources such as the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program, which has made outreach to veterans a priority, and educational opportunities. 

More are sought. The group hopes to encourage dialogue and networking about issues such as training and land availability.

Rick and Jennifer Cavey spent, both U.S. Navy veterans, lived in Virginia Beach before they launched their family farm in Independence, Va. They grow vegetables and have chickens for meat and eggs. 

They sell at farmers markets and to restaurants, and they do a bit of wholesale work, too.

Locals may remember Jennifer Cavey as owner and chef at Gringo’s Taqueria, which is still going strong under new ownership, and the restaurant used supplies grown at New Earth Farm in Pungo, then owned by J.D. “Farmer John” Wilson, a farmer and consultant who also writes a sustainable agriculture column for The Independent News.

Visits to the Pungo farm, in part, led to their decision to join the agriculture field on their own. 

“We would go out to John’s farm to pick up supplies,” said Rick Cavey, who now is involved with the coalition. “We really got interested in that side of the food chain.”

The military connection matters, too.  “I think veterans, soldiers and military men and women deal with adversity and challenges to some extreme degrees,” Cavey said. “They walk through it with training and operational steps and get the job done. Farming is the same way. Weather and all different extreme scan be thrown at you.”

Wilson worked with Rick Cavey and another veteran Coleman Ruiz, who also is featured in the documentary.

“Those two guys, Rick and Coleman, I say I trained them, but it didn’t take much on my part,” Wilson said. “They were the perfect students.”

He has worked with a number of veterans over the years, and he said strengths of veterans and farmers overlap, which means forging stronger relationships is an opportunity for communities such as Virginia Beach.

“One is the benefit to the veteran community of having something great to do,” he said. “They’re the perfect group to come into it because they’re mission oriented, self disciplined, smart and have a work ethic.”

Advocates of linking veterans with the agriculture industry are not speaking about expanding opportunities in terms of handouts. 

In addition to potentially addressing food security issues and sustainable practices, there are economic development reasons to support forging a stronger bond between agriculture and military communities.

The 2016 Hampton Roads State of the Region report released by Old Dominion University’s Center for Economic Analysis and Policy noted that about 12,000 military service people retire from local bases. The center’s report endorsed efforts to create a unified way for the area to “attract, retain, train and employ veterans.”

The report echoed a point made by farmers interviewed for this story: “These individuals are motivated, reliable and have strong work habits. Further, they often bring retirement income with them.” 

Such income can be a stabilizing factor for people beginning in farming, helping with the risks and expense that go hand in hand with even a small family farm.

American Farmer: A Tribute to America’s Veteran Farmers will be held Friday, Nov. 10, at The American Theatre, 125 East Mellen Street, Hampton. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the program begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, available at the box office or via, are $25 in advance or $30 at the door. There is a 10 percent military discount. Proceeds will benefit the Virginia chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. 

Visit for information about the Farmer Veteran Coalition or follow the Virginia chapter on Facebook via @FVCofVA.

Visit for information about the documentary Ground Operations and links to resources for veteran farmers.

© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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