In our series “A More Perfect Union,” “CBS This Morning” aims to show that what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us.
Nearly half of U.S. farmers are planning to retire in the next five years, and it’s not clear who will replace them. One group in Virginia may have a solution: military members and veterans, who are being trained not only to do the job, but also to help some of the millions of people who don’t have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
At Arcadia Farm, in Alexandria, Va., on land once owned by George Washington, the philosophy is that military veterans looking for a new career have exactly what skills are necessary to be successful farmers.
“Farmers and military folks have a very similar mindset when it comes to their work,” said Arcadia Farm executive director Pamela Hess, who helped create the Veteran Farmer Program. “Farming is a mission-oriented business in the same way that a military mission is. You can’t stop at 5 o’clock, you stop when the mission is done.”
The program’s goal is to give veterans an opportunity to earn a living in a new but surprisingly similar walk of life.
And if you’re wondering what veterans and farmers have in common, well, the answer is … a lot. “They can work in all temperatures, they can carry very heavy loads, they are great at long-term planning, they are not freaked out by crisis,” Hess told CBS News national correspondent Chip Reid.
Jennie Haskamp spent 15 years as a United States Marine. Now, she’s a farmer, with a focus on flowers. “These are what I want – I want healthy zinnias,” she said.
Haskamp learned the science and art of farming at Arcadia Farm. “It’s exhausting, it’s hot, it’s buggy, and it’s the most satisfying and the happiest I’ve ever been,” she said.
She began three years ago in Arcadia’s part-time Veteran Farmer Reserve Program, that gives veterans an opportunity to decide if farming is for them. For her, it was a perfect fit.
“I think it’s an incredible program for veterans transitioning from years of service into the next career,” Haskamp said. She now farms here full-time, and dreams of one day having a small farm of her own.
About 125 veterans have learned to farm at Arcadia, and most, including Army veteran Marcus Roberson, developed a passion for growing fruits and vegetables. He showed Reid what he’s raising: strawberries, garlic, cucumbers, pumpkins, watermelons and tomatoes.
“What did you feel like that first time you put your fingers in the soil here?” Reid asked.
“Terrified!” he replied. “I had no clue what I was doing, or when to do it, or how, or even why for that matter.”
But over four years, with help from Arcadia Farm’s experts, he figured it out.
Reid asked, “Do you think of yourself as a farmer now?”
“Yes, yes. I’m even thinking of changing my name: Farmer Marcus!”
Reid caught up with Hess at Arcadia’s mobile market, which sells much of the veteran farmers’ fresh produce in several under-served neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. — “neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores, that have a high use of food stamps and low car ownership, which means that people have a really hard time getting their hands on good quality, beautiful healthy food,” Hess said.
Government nutrition benefits are accepted here, and the market’s many regular customers say it’s the only place in the area with food this fresh.
One customer, Bernadette Barnett, said she likes Arcadia’s kale: “It holds; if you make a salad today, and put it in the fridge, it’s still going to be fresh the next day.”
“There are many people in this area over here in the apartments who do not have transportation, and they need to have fresh produce,” said Denise Tyles-McKoy.
The mobile market has seen double-digit growth every year since 2012. Hess gives much of the credit to her team of veterans. At Arcadia Farm, said Hess, “we don’t just grow food, we also grow farmers.”
Farmers who, after serving their nation, have found their next mission.
Jennie Haskamp said, “The best part of being out here is realizing that I can succeed, that I can do things I never planned to do, and I can do more than I thought that I could still do.”
“Farmer Marcus” said, “If you allow yourself to see what’s possible, to see the potential, to see what you can do, don’t be afraid to join, don’t be afraid to try, don’t be afraid to fail, and know that if we are lucky, tomorrow’s another day.”
The program is not just for veterans; they also accept some active duty service members who are trying to get a head start on deciding if a life on the farm is the life for them.
For information on applying to Arcadia Farm’s Veteran Farmer Reserve Program click here.
Check out the Arcadia Mobile Market’s schedule here.