The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants more veterans to get into farming, and they sent one of their top officials to help lead the charge in Alaska.
USDA Deputy Undersecretary Lanon Baccam was in Alaska last week to meet with farming groups from across the state to promote the idea. The 2014 farm bill designated veterans as a distinct class of farmers, opening up loan and grant opportunities. Baccam's position was created as a result of the farm bill, with the idea that he can work across agency lines -- particularly between the USDA and the Department of Defense -- to collaborate on veteran farming opportunities.
Baccam believes Alaska holds huge potential for farmers. He said Alaska's biggest advantage is that it still has lots of land that could be developed for agriculture, unlike states that have already developed most of their land.
Alaska also has a large veteran population. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, there are over 70,000 vets in the state, one of the highest rates per capita in the country.
Veterans often make good farmers for the same reasons they enlist in the military -- they have a sense of purpose and duty, Baccam said.
"When they separate from the military, they're often lacking that," said Baccam, an Army veteran himself. "But they find it in farming."
In an interview Wednesday, Mike Williams, owner of Eagle Song Family Peony Farm and an Army veteran, spoke about the need to include more veterans in agriculture.
He said farmers are an aging population overall and it's important to encourage young people to get involved in the industry. He hopes to harness the potential of veterans -- with their strong military work ethic.
"It's just common sense," he said.
Williams said the national Veterans Farmer Coalition has interest in setting up a branch in Alaska. They're just waiting to see a movement building.
Baccam said about 15 farmers attended a roundtable discussion on the subject in Palmer earlier in the week. He'll be traveling to other rural states as well to continue outreach.
"Many veterans come from rural places," Baccam said. "And we're going to be there to catch them."