WASHINGTON – Mike Simester had always dreamed of a being a career soldier. But after the Iraqi war veteran was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a motorcycle accident left the Iowa native struggling to cope with severe head and leg injuries, his life changed.
Simester's time in the Army was over. And lost, he thought, was his identity and his sense of purpose.
The 37-year-old has since undergone hardcore mental and physical "forced therapy," as he calls it, and finds himself now thriving in what once seemed the most unlikely of places: 10 acres of farmland in rural Iowa that is home to apple and peach trees, rows of vegetables and scores of chickens that demand his daily attention.
"Every morning, regardless of how bad I feel, physically, or how tired I am, there is still stuff that has to get done. The animals have to be taken care of, the irrigation has to be run," said Simester, who started Serendipity Farms four years ago in Muscatine, Iowa, even though he and his wife had no prior agricultural experience.
"I've made great strides in how I feel about myself. For the first couple years after I got out, I was in a pretty dark place. There were some days when I didn't feel like getting out of bed, but farming and selling produce, it gives you that feeling of self-worth and helps you overcome the 'I don't feel like doing this today feeling.' "
Simester's 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. Iowa has nearly 234,000 veterans in the state.
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 Iowa 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. "There's definitely a groundswell of veterans that are interested in (farming)."
Last December, the one-year-old non-profit held a workshop in Des Moines for veterans to find out more about the group, hear from Agriculture Department officials about programs the government offers and talk to a rural bank representative about access to loans and capital to get started in farming.
Cox said organizers were hoping 20 veterans would attend the event; they ended up getting four times that many. Michael O'Gorman, the head of the group's national organization, has experienced similar success in recent years after founding the Farmer Veteran Coalition out of the back of his pickup truck in 2008. That year, 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 who founded the coalition to help military veterans transition into agriculture. "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.
"The community support that now exists for veterans, in particular those that are trying this transition into farming, let alone any career, has overwhelmed me at times," Simester said. "Sitting in a wheelchair six years ago I did not see myself sitting in a tractor."
Simester said his leg injuries made his Allis Chalmers tractor difficult to operate so the Easter Seals of Iowa and the Veterans Affairs department helped him find a new one from John Deere that was altered to meet his needs, including the installation of hand controls to operate the vehicle and a modified seat that provides more support for his body when traveling over rugged fields. Local farmers chip in, too, by answering questions and sometimes helping him with projects on the farm like the digging of a drainage ditch.
On the surface, dodging gunfire in the battlefield and tending to animals and crops on a farm may seem like jobs that have little in common, but the reality is the pair are linked by a number of similarities. Both require leaders who are problem solvers and willing to serve. They need someone who is observant, quickly able to spot an enemy whether it's another soldier or a weed or pest before it's too late. Each requires an individual who can go seamlessly from doing paperwork one minute to fixing a broken piece of vital equipment the next.
"They are very good at dealing with crisis and circumstances because that is what they are trained to do," said former Iowa governor and current agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack. "Veterans have the capacity to respond and fix the problem, which is an important characteristic of someone who is successful in the farming business."
Vilsack said the USDA, which counts about 10 percent of its 100,000 employees as having served in the military, has worked closely with the Defense and Veterans departments to ensure that people leaving the military know farming is an option. He acknowledges, however, more could be done to tout it as a possibility.
The recently completed farm bill also offers several new programs aimed at making it easier for beginning farmers, including veterans, to enter the business, Vilsack said. Among the initiatives, a grant program for beginning farmers and ranchers requires the USDA to make veterans a priority; and a liaison at the department will help farmers understand agriculture programs and advocate for their interests. And landowners who have acreage coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program — which pays them an annual rent to idle environmentally fragile acreage for 10 years or more would receive extra payments if they lease or sell the property to a veteran farmer.
Chris Brown, who led Marines in two deployments in Iraq and another in Afghanistan during a four-year stint, was looking for a career where he could help his fellow veterans. Today, the 28-year-old veteran is leading soldiers on a 3-acre organic farm near Seattle where they raise more than 30 different varieties of fruits and vegetables that are peddled at the city's VA hospital every Thursday.
The time on the farm with other veterans, he said, has helped him cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder and reduce his anxiety. Brown's fine motor skills, which were affected after a mild traumatic brain injury suffered in Iraq following a suicide bombing, have improved following hours spent harvesting, planting and pruning. He now sleeps better at night.
"That type of reflection can be very powerful for me after so many negative things, so much death and destruction," Brown said. "Just in that aspect (farming) is therapeutic."