Veterans get new mission on the farm

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Robert Elliott knows America’s veterans have the kind of spirit that it will take to improve the country’s agriculture.

Elliott, executive director of The Veterans Farm of North Carolina, will speak to the Wilson County Extension Master Gardeners on Monday.

The 37-year-old Marine veteran considers himself lucky to now live and farm on 850 acres of property near Louisburg where he grew up. The farm has been in the family since the 1800s.

“When I grew up, I watched bankruptcies happen, everything on the farm get sold off in the ‘80s and ‘90s and I watched the trials and tribulations of an American farmer,” Elliott said. “We were lucky enough to be able to keep the land.”

Growing up on a farm was not attractive at all to Elliott as a young man.

“I had to do something other than farm and that’s why I chose the military. I served five years in the Marines and then I was a contractor for them,” Elliott said. “When I was laid off, I couldn’t find a job and was trying to wrap up a degree in school. I wound up moving home and farming and trying it and found out that I did love it and it was good for me as a veteran.”

Elliott said he will be talking to the gardeners’ group about the history of military as it relates to agriculture.

“Most service members, or fighting forces, came from agricultural communities and it’s only been since the ‘40s or ‘50s that it has changed over to all other demographics of people because of the loss of farms,” Elliott said. “Now there is a movement in the U.S. to get veterans into agriculture again because we have so many people within the industry.”

Elliott said there are quite a few problems in agriculture within the United States.

“These issues relate to the loss of farmland in the U.S., outsourcing a majority of our food to other countries and focusing primarily on commodity crops in the U.S., which is wheat, corn, soy and those types of crops,” Elliott said. “With the median age of farmers being 58 years old, there is not a very interested generation to come back into agriculture. Most people who are my age or younger, they see the hardships on the farm when they grow up on one and they don’t want to go through that with their families when they get to be of age and most of them are going to cities and looking for bigger and better jobs that are going to pay well and not be such a life of hardship.”

Elliott said his job today is to help veterans learn about jobs in agriculture that are not only sustainable, but also conventional and profitable, to show them how to make a living and find solace on the farms after a life of military duty.

“Almost all veterans that I work with are one-on-one basis,” Elliott said. “They all tend to have the same needs. Veterans are so disconnected to the agricultural community today that they all need to have a basic introduction to agriculture and then they need mentors to keep them going and some assistance programs, because getting into farming can be very tough. They need solid directions and guidance from people who have been there and done that and know some of the ins and outs.”

Elliiott realized that veterans need viable resources to help them.

“Myself and quite a few other veterans across the U.S. worked together to develop new ideas and help each other and other veterans in our own individual states,” Elliott said. “There are quite a few of us that talk on a weekly basis if not daily. We always try to come up with new ideas and try to share them.”

“A lot of these vets are coming into farming and they are buying land. They are buying a home. They are having to buy equipment, and all of this stuff starts to really add up. It’s very expensive to get into farming. What we are trying to do is figure out ways to alleviate some of those costs and assist vets in building a farm.”

The talk begins at 3 p.m. following the 2:30 p.m. plant sale at the Wilson County Agricultural Center on Tarboro Street in Wilson.

dwilson@wilsontimes.com | 265-7818