Lawrence Parkhill - co-founded Veteran Farmers of America - Ventura County Agricultural Education

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By Marissa Nall   /  Friday, March 4th, 2016   /
Pacific Coast Business Times /  Download the Article

Ventura County farms and agribusinesses have a new pool of candidates to fill a growing list of job openings — veterans.

Since 2012, Veteran Farmers of America has facilitated more than a dozen internships for veterans with local growers like Mission Produce, McGrath Family Farms, Limoneira, Underwood Farms and Rancho Del Pueblo.

Veterans spend two weeks shadowing industry professionals in positions ranging from regional management to maintenance, sales and grower operations.

Steve Barnard, CEO of Mission Produce, which has placed the majority of the veterans so far, said he found the program at the beginning of a wave of expansion for his company.

Barnard had hired veterans before and found them to have good work habits, ethics, leadership skills and focus, he said. With growth in the U.S., Peru and Mexico, and two centers opening up in Canada and Europe, he couldn’t hire fast enough.

“It’s all across the board,” Barnard said. “This thing is growing pretty rapidly. It’s like an NFL draft: we recruit the athlete, then find the spot later.”

The dynamic environment of agriculture work suits many veterans, said Lawrence Parkhill, now maintenance support manager at Mission and co-founder of the VFA. He started the program in 2013 after he left the service when a friend and fellow veteran bought a house near him and found he enjoyed growing fruit trees.

At that time, the military put more effort into retention, Parkhill said. Since then, it has begun to reduce numbers, leading to an influx of veterans to the labor force.

“I’ve had a lot of excitement and it’s challenging to find something — I scuba dive, I ride motorcycles — to try to find something that still interests you,” Parkhill said. “The thing with agriculture is that it’s always changes. It doesn’t get boring.”

The needs of agriculture are also changing quickly, Barnard said. Mechanization means a demand for workers with technical skills and adaptability.

“As we bring in more and more technology, the job has changed in the 32 years we’ve been doing it,” he said. “We used to pack it by hand. Now it’s not. It’s done by machine.”

Jobs in the sector are also poised to open up as the average farmer gets closer to retirement age. U.S. Department of Agriculture census data show California ahead of the national average of 58.3, with farmers in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara ages 61.2 on average and ages 62.6 in Ventura.

Misconceptions about the type of work that is available might stop some veterans from seeing it as a viable option, Parkhill said.

“That was one of my concerns starting the program and looking for work in agriculture — I didn’t know if my body could physically take it,” Parkhill said. But “it’s a full-on enterprise. It’s international. There’s so much more than you ever could think driving down the 101 and watching people work.”

Right now he’s trying to get Barnard to send him to Peru.

“I’m begging and begging,” Parkhill said. “That’s one thing you’ll find. (Veterans) are all willing to travel, eager to travel. They’ve traveled before.”

A major challenge up front is screening veterans, Parkhill said. Prospective participants meet with Julie Sardonia, the program coordinator, for an initial interview and an application.

“I try to fit the veteran’s needs and skills from the military with the needs and skills from the farms or the ag businesses,” Sardonia said. “We really want it to be a win-win for everybody.”

A licensed therapist for 23 years, Sardonia works with veterans in nontraditional psychotherapy programs like VFA.

Sardonia does much of her outreach at local community colleges and universities, targeting veterans who are working toward degrees. Once they’re placed with a business, she calls them to check up every couple of days.

“I’m very hands-on and I make that very clear from the beginning,” Sardonia said. “We really want to support our veterans in Ventura County and help them decrease the unemployment rate while also decreasing mental health issues.”

Veterans often need help acclimating after deployments and leaving the military, said Parkhill, which is where agriculture can really benefit them. New opportunities, learning new skills and engaging with new people provide motivation and purpose.

“If you’ve got idle time on your hands, sitting around doing nothing, you have a lot of time to self-reflect,” Parkhill said. “If you’re busy and engaged on the next mission, which is right in front of you, that’s the difference between the guys that make it and don’t make it. This is the next mission.”

VFA is a non-profit program operating under Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture. Funding from donations and grants goes toward reimbursements for the two weeks of wages during the internship, up to $1,000.

Mission Produce is holding the program’s first fundraiser at its new Oxnard packinghouse May 20. Sardonia said she hopes the “going out” event will help them grow the number of veterans the program can reach to two per month this year.

“The main thing is increasing our community’s awareness that our veterans need our support in the employment arena,” Sardonia said.

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