- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - Matthew Hayes had always planned on becoming a police officer, following in the footsteps of his father and older brother. In 2008, he joined the Marine Corps to burnish his résumé and increase his chances of landing a good law enforcement job.

But after serving as a machine gunner in Afghanistan for seven months in 2011 and leaving the military with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder last year, a career in law enforcement no longer appealed to him, The Springfield News-Leader (http://sgfnow.co/1rSk742 ) reported.

After his deployment, the 32-year-old Hayes started having nightmares and anxiety. He felt disconnected from society and ended up needing treatment at a mental health facility in Texas before being medically discharged from the Marine Corps last fall.

Now, Hayes has discovered a place and a way to heal that he never imagined: a 22-acre farm outside Ava, where he and his wife are hoping to grow hops or passion fruit. They purchased the land in April, planted an organic garden, and are now gearing up for bigger crops.

Like being in the military, Hayes said, farming gives him a “sense of accomplishment and doing something for other people.” But unlike being in combat, he said, “it’s quiet; it’s peaceful.”

“… I can get some kind of healing out of it,” Hayes said.

Hayes’ transition from the battlefield to the farm field underscores a growing trend in America: as thousands of young military personnel leave the service, many are finding themselves drawn to the prospect of jobs on farms and ranches scattered throughout the countryside. USDA data shows that even though rural America makes up 17 percent of the country’s population, it accounts for 44 percent of the men and women who served in the military. Missouri is home to nearly 500,000 veterans.

For agriculture, their arrival is a welcomed relief. Increasingly, farming and ranching is facing an aging population that has sparked concerns about who will take over many of the family farms across Missouri and other parts of the United States. The average age of a U.S. farmer is now 58.

“Agriculture needs veterans as much as veterans need agriculture,” said Ed Cox, chairman of the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Iowa, an organization that works with farm groups to match veterans with opportunities in agriculture.

In southwest Missouri, the Sustainable Ozarks Partnership has started hosting “veterans to farmers” workshops - with the first one held earlier this month in Jefferson City and another planned for September in St. Robert.

Ron Selfors, a staffer at the partnership who is working on the initiative, said the workshops are focused on the basics: helping veterans figure out what opportunities there are in farming and connecting them with resources on how to get started.

“We’re also trying to … establish a mentorship program, where we can put a new veteran farmer with a seasoned veteran farmer,” Selfors said

He said there’s been strong interest so far from local veterans looking for a new career.

Michael O’Gorman, founder of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national organization dedicated to helping veterans move into agriculture, said his experience has been similar. When he first started the coalition out of the back of his pickup truck in 2008, O’Gorman found nine veterans in California interested in agriculture; today he and his staff hear from 200 former soldiers a month across the country.

“I think we’ve blown open the doors. There is a real sense of interest among the veterans and that seems to be feeding off of each other,” said O’Gorman. “What’s happening with veterans one by one is going to become more visible to the public.”

The Farmer Veteran Coalition also has been instrumental in promoting a new nationwide labeling program that allows farmers, ranchers and fishermen who served in the military to use a special logo to promote their agricultural products. The “Homegrown by Heroes” label, first created by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture in 2013, appears on websites, packaging and displays.

While veterans are showing a growing interest in farming, they still encounter the same daunting challenges that many new producers face in getting started. They must find land, understand the basics of growing crops or raising livestock and procure financing to purchase seed, equipment and cover other costs. Many are left to overcome these hurdles despite lingering mental and physical ailments from their time in the military.

“I can’t do the heavy stuff,” said Wendy Lombardi, 52, who bought a small farm south of Lebanon in 2009 after leaving the military and trying out other careers. During Desert Storm, she served as the driver for a battalion commander, and she lost partial use of her right arm after a car accident in Saudi Arabia.

Lombardi says other area farmers help her out with clearing fence lines and cutting wood. The work she is able to do herself - tending to her dairy goats and chickens and puttering in her garden - helps clear her mind of the gruesome images she saw in the war.

“When I came back, every time I’d see a boot on the side of the road or a glove, to me it was a limb,” she said. “When you’re out here and you’re sitting on your front porch, it’s just like it’s a whole different planet.”

“… This is a good energy here,” she added. “It’s been really good for me.”

Curtis Pepper, a 29-year-old veteran who served in Iraq, said the prospect of a career in farming has helped him turn his life around. When he was first discharged from the Army in 2005, Pepper said he felt lost and depressed. Like Hayes, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I pretty much wanted to be numb,” he said. He started drinking heavily to block out the memories of the war and even contemplated suicide at one point after losing his job at a St. Louis car dealership.

“I sat around for a long time, didn’t do anything with my life,” he said. A native of Detroit, Pepper said he was surrounded by “a lot of concrete” growing up, and he never envisioned becoming a farmer. But he started helping out at community gardens and loved it, so when a friend suggested farming, “it sort of clicked.”

He moved to Columbia and is now a senior in the University of Missouri’s sustainable agriculture program.

“It gave me a sense of meaning,” he said. “I had a place in life. I had a vision for what I wanted to do.”

Like Hayes, Pepper said farming has helped him cope with his PTSD.

“It’s very methodical. You go through the actions of weeding and being out in the sunshine … it quiets the mind,” he said. “It brings a calm and de-stresses you.”

He said he’s interested in starting a permaculture orchard in Missouri if he can afford it when he graduates. But he said he’s also interested in working to help other veterans start careers in farming.

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Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com

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