ROBINSON, ND — Brad Hoff went back to school to become a physician assistant in 2008, and he knew he wanted to focus on rural medicine. His mother had cancer at the time, so he chose to work in Carrington, about 35 miles from the family farm north of Robinson.
At Carrington, he was trained by Dr. Todd Schaffer, who sold Hoff to join the North Dakota National Guard. So that year, Hoff joined. Now a major and part of the state medical detachment, he had a range of experiences in the Guard, medical missions and a deployment to Afghanistan to become a flight surgeon.
“It’s been a good career,” he said, sitting in his parents’ basement on the farm. “I think it’s going to be a much longer career.”
Hoff’s day job remains in Carrington, where his job involves hospital visits, clinic visits and emergency coverage. Combine that with her daycare and a family, and Hoff has a full life. In 2012, he bought land and continued to farm with his father alongside his other jobs. But rather than adding more stress, Hoff finds it a good way to balance her life.
“In all honesty, farming has been a big stress reliever for me,” he said. “It was an opportunity to come back to where I was raised and what I know. And it gives me the opportunity to get away from medicine, away from the daily hustle and bustle.
According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, there were 370,619 veteran farmers nationwide in 2017. As a percentage, that means 11% of all farmers are also veterans, ahead of 7% of the general population. who served in the military.
Michael O’Gorman, a former organic farmer in California, started the Farmer Veteran Coalition in 2008 to try to connect veterans to opportunities in agriculture. When he hears of agricultural service members like Hoff, he thinks of the farmer-soldiers who founded the country.
“That’s the story, and the long story, in America,” he said. “We were founded by Washington and Jefferson and farmers who were also soldiers, defenders of the country.”
When Hoff was growing up, his family farm focused on small grains and livestock. After his grandfather died, he and his father, Doug, decided to get away from cattle. Today they farm about 2,800 acres, growing mostly wheat and soybeans.
Hoff went to college at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, for X-ray technology, then worked at what was then called Meritcare in Fargo, ND, until he returned to the school to become a medical assistant in 2008.
The National Guard hadn’t been on his radar until Schaffer told him about programs to pay for his education and ways to grow and experience new things. Hoff joined “active duty for special work,” a designation for servicemen graduating from school, and then commissioned directly into the Guard as a second lieutenant after graduating.
While on medical assignments in Ghana, Hoff was part of a team that trains doctors in the National Guard’s sister state and cares for civilians, including treating 1,100 patients over a three-day period.
Hoff said parts of his Afghanistan deployment in 2014 were similar to medical assignments and his regular job at Carrington; he and other doctors dealt with the normal daily ailments of the soldiers. But he was also part of medical evacuation missions in which medical personnel stabilized wounded soldiers on the battlefield and brought them to higher levels of care.
In recent years, Hoff has become a flight surgeon, meaning he takes care of pilots and makes sure their health is “perfect”. This coincides with his personal interest in flight; he obtained his private pilot’s license shortly before his deployment. He said he appreciated the opportunities the Guard provided to continue learning. The next challenge he plans to take on is going to air assault school.
His work at Carrington, he said, is “pretty consistent every day”. It consists of hospital rounds, followed by a clinic and covering the emergency room with three other providers. COVID-19 has added some difficulties, with regular complications trying to find beds in major hospitals for people who need care and trying to cover more ground for sometimes understaffed facilities.
“With everything going on, it’s a lot more stressful right now,” he said.
Hoff, a fourth-generation farmer and the third generation on the current family farm, said the farm provides opportunities to focus on his family. He and his wife, Ashley, have three children who visit the farm frequently. Going there allows for more time outdoors and less screen time and experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have. For example, Hoff and a parent plan to stockpile a large swamp that sits between their land to give their children a place to go fishing.
Maintaining the farm for another generation is also important to Hoff, who relishes his time with his father.
“I know it means the world to him,” he said.
Hoff also enjoys the change of pace that farming gives him. It’s not that it’s an easy job, he said, but it’s just “different from any other profession”. Hard physical labor offers him a sort of escape.
“It’s weird how you don’t need a vacation when you’re on a farm,” Hoff said.
Hoff, as part of the medical detachment, is part of the team that performs annual medical exams on members of the North Dakota National Guard. So he has spoken to many other members who, like him, return to a farm or ranch, and he finds that others associate their enjoyment of farm work with hard work.
This comes as no surprise to O’Gorman, who finds that the sense of purpose in farming parallels the sense of purpose many feel while serving in the military.
“It’s that sense of purpose, that sense of mission that people find in farming. People need food,” he said. “Our ability to feed our country is a matter of national security.”
Add to that the responsibility of caring for the earth, the environment and other people, and it’s an occupation that offers a “healing transition to civilian life,” O’Gorman said.
O’Gorman has had a career in agriculture for nearly four decades, running a large-scale organic produce farm. He never served in the army. But on September 11, 2001, her daughter witnessed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. O’Gorman was in Mexico at the time and was struggling to return home to his family in California. And when he arrived there, his son was in uniform, having enlisted after the attacks.
Witnessing his son’s commitment planted the seed for O’Gorman to do something to serve those who serve. Now the Farmer Veteran Coalition offers the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund, which provides grants to farmers to advance their farms or go in a different direction. It can be a piece of equipment, such as a crush, a greenhouse or an irrigation system, or even an animal to start a livestock operation. The fund has provided nearly $3 million in grants since 2011, O’Gorman said. In a further effort, the coalition is partnering with Kubota to allocate tractors to select members of the Veterans Coalition.
One program that O’Gorman is particularly enthusiastic about is the Homegrown by Heroes label. The program began in Kentucky, with the intention of giving veteran farmers special recognition in the marketplace. The Farmer Veteran Coalition worked with Kentucky to bring the program to all 50 states.
Along with these programs, the coalition also works with partners such as the Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, Farm Credit, AgrAbility and others to help provide resources and programs for veteran farmers. The coalition has chapters in many states and welcomes membership from veterans or active military members. Its annual conference, which will be held virtually this year, is scheduled for November 18-19. For more information, visit https://conference.farmvetco.org/schedule.
The United States Department of Agriculture also has several programs for veterans, including employment programs, educational programs, and entrepreneurship resources. For more information, visit https://www.usda.gov/our-agency/initiatives/veterans.