By SABRINA MATTESON
For the Capital Press
Most people have a clear image of what farmers are like. That's because people create fixed stereotypes and then believe their own generalizations about members of a particular group.
At a recent workshop in a rural Midwestern state, a group of people wrote down the stereotypical characteristics of those who work the land. This included: farmers are strong, have red necks, and wear overalls and plaid shirts; they get up early and go to bed with the sun; they tuck a straw in the sides of their mouths and smell like work (which really means sweat and manure); they are independent, self-reliant and shoot things that cause harm to their livestock; and they undertake great risks for little profit, enjoy hardship, think imaginatively, and are highly respected by the community despite the fact that most folks would never do what they do.
The list went on -- identifying some great and some awful characteristics -- but it's striking how comparable these farmer traits are to stereotypes of those in the military.
In 2008, Michael O'Gorman, an organic farmer from California, was struck by the similarities of farmers and soldiers. Farm kids have the skills to become great soldiers and soldiers can become great farmers. He thought it amazing that no one was helping veterans become farmers, even though they are so obviously suited to that life. Thus, the Farmer Veteran Coalition was born.
Marc Henrie of Smithfield, Utah, served as a platoon leader in the Utah Army National Guard field artillery in Iraq. This cattle and hay farmer agrees that there are a lot of similarities between soldiers and farmers.
"The main thing I would point out is our love for the land and our ability to work hard," says Marc. "Soldiers and farmers share long days, often working through the night. They have bonds with those with whom they serve and are very loyal. Farmers and veterans are known as fearless risk-takers. Many are asked to do difficult tasks, often as they risk their own safety or livelihood. Both groups continue to hope for a bright future and are optimistic for what the future holds."
Paul Schwennesen of Double Check Ranch in Winkelman, Ariz., confirmed this love of hard work when he went off to boot camp. Other enlistees were complaining how difficult it was but Schwennesen thought that it was easier than life on the farm.
"The military helped me to learn an organized, methodical approach to time management," says Schwennesen. "There are lots of moving pieces in the military and the farm, and it is important to get them all to pull in the same direction at the same time. We are conditioned by the reality of our lives with early mornings, long hard days and physical exertion."
The Farmer Veteran Coalition provides education, risk management training, funding and technical assistance to prepare veterans become farmers. Assistance for internships also is offered, particularly for disabled veterans to obtain the necessary training to run their own operations as they heal from war-related injuries in a productive environment.
Let's count our blessings that there is an organization working to transition our veterans, who have already sacrificed so much for us, into a life for which many of them are so perfectly suited. While we're at it, let's abandon the stereotypes and instead honor the noble similarities between farmers and veterans by welcoming more of them as they embark on a different way of serving our nation.
Sabrina Matteson is director of rural affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation.