Veterans in Ag Program Helps Veterans Get Start in Farming

ISU Extension and Outreach provides resources for veterans to transition from military service to farming

November 11, 2016, 10:23 am | David W. Baker

VeteransAMES, Iowa – Paul Havran smiles from behind a large desk in his West Des Moines office.

“I’m not the normal face of a beginning farmer,” said Havran, a master sergeant in the Iowa Air National Guard. “But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been pursuing that dream all my life. Since I was nine years old I’ve wanted to own land. I just grew up thinking that everyone wanted to own land and farm.”

Havran grew up in south central Iowa, helping his grandfather with chores. They gathered eggs, raised chickens and always had farm fresh beef on the table.

“I always thought about how peaceful that was and how I wanted that same connection to the land,” Havran said. “That want was always there – an itch I just couldn’t quite scratch.”

At the same time he was dreaming of owning a farm, Havran started to put his plan in motion.

“I wanted to join the military, get a degree from Drake University, retire at 40 and own 1,000 acres by the age of 50,” Havran said. “That was my plan at age nine. I’m fortunate, I’ve met just about all those goals.

“This summer we closed on 40 acres near Milo. It’s not quite 1,000 acres, but it’s where I start.”

The Plan to Own a Farm

Havran’s plan was always in place in his mind, the trick was putting it into motion.

He joined the United States Marine Corps, spending six years as a platoon sergeant. After leaving the Marines and earning his degree (both a bachelors and master’s from Drake), he settled into a job teaching religion at Saint Pius X School. The military came calling once again in 2006 and Havran has been working for the Iowa Air National Guard ever since.

Having served his country and earned a college degree, Havran has now turned his attention to the final checkmark on his list – owning and farming land. While he knew where he wanted to go, he needed a little help figuring out how to get started.

“The first piece for me was sitting down with the staff with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Beginning Farmer Center,” Havran said. “They provide legal assistance right away and give you the materials you need to move forward.”

The Beginning Farmer Center was created by the Iowa Legislature in 1994 to focus exclusively on the needs and issues facing beginning farmers. The center also works to match beginning farmers with existing farmers who want to transition their farm business to the next generation.

One of the programs the Beginning Farmer Center has played a major role in is the Veterans in Agriculture program. This program was created three years ago in order to better connect veterans with a career in agriculture as a non-profit 501c(3) located in Iowa.

“We just weren’t getting our message to veterans,” said Dave Baker, farm transition specialist with the Beginning Farmer Center. “We knew there were many veterans coming back to school for education as well as career opportunities. Private businesses wanted to hire them but had a hard time determining how their military training aligned with the criteria they were using for hiring. Veterans in Ag was designed to help coordinate their military training into what civilian companies were looking for so they could serve these companies in a similar way to how they served the country.”

Help through the Beginning Farmer Center

Having a plan when they leave the service is something that is stressed to active military members. Ideally, those leaving the military will know what they want their next chapter to look like.

“In the military we are taught to set a goal and work toward that goal,” Havran said. “In the Air Force we are told to look 5, 10 years down range and see what needs to be done to get to that goal. It’s the same thing in farming.”

Getting from knowing what you want to do to being able to do it, that’s the challenge.

“Dave (Baker) sits down with you and helps you look at how to start the process, how to get into a niche,” Havran said. “Most guys can’t write a $300,000 check for a cow/calf herd. A lot of people think you can only get a farm by having it handed down to you. That’s not true and that’s where Dave comes in to help you find other options.”

Baker and the Beginning Farmer Center have a variety of tools to help veterans take those next steps down their chosen path. The AgLink matching program can be used to introduce those who want to get into farming to a current farmer hoping to find a successor to take over the farm business. Currently, the Beginning Farmer Center has a database of over 600 farmers in the AgLink system who are looking for a farm to take over. That process can be slow, as only 40-45 current farmers are looking for someone to take over their operation.

Baker also helps veterans pursuing a career in farming think about questions they need to ask themselves.

Where are you going to live? What housing options are available? If a spouse is looking for an off-farm job, will any be available? Where is the nearest school? Nearest hospital? These are all questions that must be thought through before taking on the responsibility of an ag business.

Baker is working with 60 veterans as they work to transition from a military career to running a farming operation. The Veterans in Ag program also offers peer working groups for veterans, with over a dozen farmers working together to learn and grow their businesses.

The Veterans in Ag program also helps connect those wanting to get into agribusiness with mentors who can help ease the transition into farming. For Havran, that mentor is Donnie Hunerdosse, someone who has donated his time and equipment to help Havran’s operation get started.

Growing Together

While talking with Baker, Havran shared his ideas to grow his cow/calf operation. He was looking for a place to grow alfalfa and bale it. Baker knew his church in Waukee had extra land and put Havran in contact with church leadership. The crop he harvests from that land is now used as feed for his cows.

“Little by little you grow your operation,” Baker said. “We just try to help connect the dots.
“I want veterans who are interested in farming to sit with me and tell me about their business plan. That can scare some people off but we start with what the veteran wants to do and what they enjoy doing. I try to help them figure out what their options are and how to generate revenue. If you need income to support your family, then you have to generate revenue.”

Both Baker and Havran see a natural attraction between agriculture and veterans.

“Agriculture offers a great amount of independence,” Baker said. “Farmers have the freedom to do what they want, when they want. Many enjoy being outside and working with their hands. For many it is also getting back to their roots, being around people they grew up with, their friends and neighbors.”

Farming also requires the support of the most important community – the family. Havran’s wife Renee has been at his side for 30 years, working together to make the dream of owning land and operating a successful farm business a reality. The couple’s children, Elisha and Taylor, are also heavily invested and hope to one day take over the farm and continue its legacy.

“Farming keeps families together, everyone has to be united toward the same goal,” Havran said. “That is something veterans are accustomed to and understand.”

The End Result

Havran’s agricultural adventure is just beginning. He secured his first 40 acres near Milo in south central Iowa with the help of Dave Baker and the Veterans in Ag program, John Baker, an attorney-at-law and administrator with the Beginning Farmer Center, and a Farm Service Agency (FSA) microloan. That land will be the home to his growing cow/calf operation; another FSA loan will allow him to purchase additional Black Angus cows and bring his herd to a dozen.

“Farming provides an internal peace,” Havran said. “Farmers have an ethic of care and conservation of the land and I see that for the next generation. That’s the biggest element that links all of us together. It’s a hard work ethic but it’s also going above and beyond what you need to be doing. It’s your time that you are putting in but it’s also what you see in the future and someday that future will get passed down to your family.”

For more information about the Beginning Farmer Center and the Veterans in Ag program, visit or contact the center at (877) BFC-1999 or

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