It can be a challenge for veterans to reintegrate into the job market after serving their country, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has programs to help.

George Johnson, district conservationist of the USDA for Flagler and Volusia counties, said he has received more and more inquiries from former service personnel who are already farming or who, in reorienting their lives, are turning to the soil.

“I welcome the opportunity to explore the possibilities of ranching, timber cultivation or agriculture,” he said.

Veterans receive preference in applying for the USDA’s programs, Johnson said.

“Everything we do has a conservation of the land as an element, using best practices. All our programs are voluntary, and all are free of charge,” he said. “These services can begin even before the person owns any land. We help with the planning process and help farmers develop their objectives and goals for where they want to be in three to five years.”

“Very often, we can help pay for a portion of their plan,” he added.

The agency’s program includes incentives for environmentally sensitive farming.

Such practices can help productivity, because fewer dollars are spent on irrigation and fertilizer, and thus, a farmer’s income goes further, Johnson said.

The USDA has developed programs to support existing farmers and entice new people into the agricultural sector, in part because so much agricultural land is being lost as it is converted to highways, commercial development and housing. The removal of land from agriculture can have consequences for the environment, and for food supply.

In Volusia County, which has seen significant loss of farm and ranch land to development, the annual economic impact of agriculture and natural-resources industries is $781 million, representing a significant portion of the county’s economic activity.

The county’s 1,114 farms cover more than 229,000 acres and produce fruit, vegetables, honey, cattle, hay, sod, fish, timber and plants, according to statistics from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Volusia County Extension office.

About 68 percent of farmers in Volusia County are part-timers, according to Johnson.

“The USDA programs offer a great way to gain financial support to expand their operations and start cultivating new crops,” he said. “It all starts with a conversation about what they want to achieve, and then we help develop a plan to reach their goals.”

One Vietnam War vet, Rob Wallace, obtained a grant that offset costs associated with protecting his pine-tree farm from future hazards.

In working with Johnson, Wallace came up with a plan to protect his tree farm from forest fires.

“Our property on the north side of Pierson has a lot of dense areas, so the funds helped us develop fire lines, so our boundary can’t be crossed,” he said. “Basically, we put in 12-foot-wide trails to stop future fires.”

“The local USDA office has people ready to help veterans,” Wallace said. “More people should take advantage of the program.”

To contact the USDA’s DeLand service office, call 386-985-4037, ext. 3.