AUGUSTA — The number of military veterans who are farmers in Maine may be relatively small, but with some care and cultivation, the Maine chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition is hoping the flock can grow.

When the 75th annual Maine Agricultural Trades Show kicks off this week, the newly minted chapter will take advantage of the setting to offer up some time on Thursday in the Somerset Room for networking for veteran farmers, host a panel discussion to introduce veteran farmers to non-veteran farmers, marketers and agricultural service providers and other industry professionals and hold a chapter meeting, which is open to the public.

“The idea is to put a personal face on the organization,” Jerry Ireland said.

For Ireland, of the Maine chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, the expo is an opportunity to expand the reach of a program that’s intended to attract veterans to agriculture and to raise the profile of the Homegrown By Heroes branding program.

Over the next decade, an estimated 100,000 farmers will retire, leaving a potential hole in the food chain. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Defense is expected to retire twice as many veterans, some of whom may be looking for something productive to do. Ireland is hoping that some of them may consider agriculture, as he did. As a post 9/11-era veteran, he turned to farming after leaving the service.

“To hold the farms, we have to create 100,000 new farmers,” he said.

One way to do that is to match up experienced farmer veterans to act as mentors for those interested in agriculture and provide on-the-job training for them.

Ben Stern, of Sweet Clover Farm in Mount Vernon, has stepped up to be one of those mentors.

Stern, who retired from the U.S. Marines well before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, had come across some of the stories written about Ireland, and they struck a chord with him.

The idea for the mentorships is fairly new, as is the Maine chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition; it was incorporated in November.

Stern and his wife, Kathy, breed Finnsheep and Finn crossbreeds for breeding and fiber, and they are at a point where they are starting to think about whether they will cut back on their operations or expand, maybe with a veteran farmer.

The networking and panel discussions will be a way to share information about opportunities and interests, he said.

It will also give Ireland a chance to showcase the “Homegrown by Heroes” branding programs, which labels products produced by farmer veterans.

“Buying those products lets you thank a veteran without saying a word,” he said.

Ireland’s farm, Ireland Hill Farms, was the first in Maine to earn the right to carry the designation on its products, which includes maple syrup. Twelve farms currently are HBH certified, and Ireland expects that number to reach 20 later this year.

The trades show has packed its schedule with events that cover topics such as sustainable farming; energy; legal, employment and business issues; organic techniques; pest management; woodlot management and changes in the wood products industry.

In his welcome note, Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, said that in the tradition of focusing on innovation, this year’s show will feature methods to improve social and conventional media outreach as one of the critical pieces to grow Maine farms.

The Agricultural Trades Show runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday at the Augusta Civic Center.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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