In 2007, Michael O’Gorman started the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) out of the back of his pickup truck. After working in production agriculture for nearly 40 years, he thought it would be a good retirement project. He got more than he bargained for.
Today, the FVC has more than 10,000 members nationwide. More than $1.5 million in fellowship funds have been given to members. Homegrown By Heroes, which is a branding program used to promote products from farmer veterans, now has 1,000 participants in all 50 states.
If that wasn’t enough of an accomplishment, O’Gorman also worked with members of the Senate Agriculture Committee while the 2014 Farm Bill was being shaped. The Military Veterans Ag Liaison position and the Farm Service Agency’s microloan program both came out of these conversations.
As the 2018 Farm Bill is being shaped, the FVC will continue to advocate to make resources available for farmer veterans.
SF: WHY DID YOU START THE FVC?
MO: In part, I was looking for something for the next chapter of my life after working in ag for nearly 40 years. We also found a niche that nobody was serving. No one was focusing on the disproportionate number of veterans returning to rural communities. The demand and interest for it on the veteran side was incredible, and that’s when the organization took off.
SF: WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT FVC’S SUCCESS?
MO: The demand. When veterans call us, they don’t just call casually. In some cases, they are almost begging for help, because there is such a desire to work in agriculture.
We learned early on that there was a healing aspect to this project. Anyone who has spent a life in agriculture knows the stress levels are enormous, but veterans didn’t shy away from stress when they went into the military.
The real secret sauce that makes it work is the sense of mission and purpose that ag provides. A lot of PTSD and other battles with trauma get mixed up with the loss of identity and purpose after veterans put their lives on the line. There’s a need to have something that is as meaningful as defending their country. Feeding the country seems to do that.
Another loss coming out of the military is the camaraderie. While our members are geographically dispersed, we can help them be a part of an organization, make friends, and bond with other veterans.
SF: FROM THE BEGINNING, YOU HAVE EMPHASIZED THAT THE FVC WILL SUPPORT ALL TYPES OF FARMING AND AGRICULTURE. WHY WAS THAT SO IMPORTANT TO YOU?
MO: I was the production manager for three of the largest organic vegetable operations in the country. My identity was primarily as a farmer; being an organic farmer was secondary. I always grimaced at anyone who spoke poorly of other farmers. My camaraderie, like someone in the military, was with my brothers and sisters who were farmers.
It’s not a political tactic or a way to help the project grow. It’s just something we believe in. I like to say that veterans fought for freedom, so we support their freedom to choose how they farm, and we honor it all.
SF: IS THERE A PARTICULAR INDIVIDUAL THAT THE ORGANIZATION HAS HELPED THAT HAS STUCK WITH YOU?
MO: David Beardi. He grew up in upstate New York, but didn’t have an ag background. He was in the New York National Guard and got called up on 9/11 to spend several months retrieving human remains from the World Trade Center. After that, he was sent to Iraq where he sustained a very serious head wound and spent 18 months in the hospital. He had to relearn how to walk and talk.
His transformation into a farmer has been so outstanding. He’s raising cattle and pork and has physically transformed himself and taken it on with such strength.
He called me a few years ago when he was dealing with PEDv. He said, “All I’m doing is burying little piggies,” and I could tell he was traumatized by it. “I’m just calling you to tell you I’m not giving up. I’m not going to give up.” He hasn’t. His operation is bigger and stronger and has helped heal his whole family.
SF: WHAT’S KEPT YOU GOING 10 YEARS PAST WHEN YOU WERE HOPING TO RETIRE?
MO: It’s definitely the stories and the gratitude that people like David express to me and the organization. I underestimated how significant and important this organization would be. I’ve stayed on to make sure we have an organization that can last long after I leave.
SF: WHEN ARE YOU PLANNING TO RETIRE?MO: I’ve told the board the end of next year.
SF: WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH BEFORE THEN?
MO: We want to increase support from the ag community and have enough funding so we can meet demand. We are working with the Army, the USDA, and the Department of Labor so that military men and women can be introduced to ag before they leave the service. That’s very exciting, and we hope it will come together in the next year.
SF BIOName: Michael O’Gorman
Title: Founder and director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition
Family: O’Gorman has four children: Anne, Emma, Georgia, and Gregory. He also has four grandchildren: Chloe, Caleb, Spencer, and Finley.