From serving in the armed forces during the War on Terror to a war on weeds, watering and growing the perfect hops for beer, Army veteran Dave Volkman said he’s always had a love for agriculture.
“There’s nothing like getting your hands out here in the dirt and making something grow,” he said.
He and his wife started Ohio Valley Hops in 2012, raising up towering hop plants some 20 feet high into the air from fields where corn and soybeans once grew.
“We’ll have thousands of pounds of cones here in August,” Volkman explained. “We’ll have to dry them and get them palletized for brewers to use and it will be in some good beer this fall.”
Volkman graduated from the United States Military Academy West Point in 1986. He served on active duty through late 1991 as an armor officer. He would cross-train, sliding into the Army Reserves and work for the 412th Civilian Affairs Battalion.
“The years I was in the military, even as a reservist, I felt like I had two full-time jobs from 2001 until I retired,” Volkman said. “I have a hard time sitting still and when I knew I was going to have a gap and I needed something to continue to provide that purpose and this was certainly the opportunity.”
It was an opportunity built off advice given to him years prior to look into what the State of Ohio uses but doesn’t grow. When he did his research, he discovered there weren’t a lot of hops farmers despite a booming brewery industry across the Buckeye State.
When the land became available, he and his wife pulled the trigger and began digging the soil, raising posts and creating the two-story-tall lines needed to allow the hops vines to crawl to their highest point.
Volkman had some help from an Air Force veteran who introduced him to the Farmer Veteran Coalition.
“We represent about 30,000 farmer veterans now, all across the nation, and even US territories, Puerto Rico, Guam, etc. Helping veterans and active-duty military pursue careers in agriculture and farming-related occupations,” said Natalie Monroe with the Farmer Veteran Coalition.
The coalition was founded by Michael Gorman, who has decades of experience in organic vegetable productions.
“What really did it for him was around that time in 2007, the Kersey Institute put out a study talking about the disproportionate number of our all-volunteer military coming from rural communities. And he thought, gosh, maybe I can do something to help them,” Monroe said.
Many of the characteristics used in military missions easily transfer to the skills needed to running a farming operation, and Gorman saw a way to help veterans transitioning to civilian life.
The coalition’s 30,000 veterans create a network where they share their own growing experience along with the trials and tribulations to help one another. A main function of the coalition is to share educational materials and resources that help veterans succeed.
“We have about 15 active state chapters across the country. That's a smaller network that they can tap into to learn about their local resources that kind of personalizes their experience,” Monroe said. “By being surrounded by the people who are most in tune with what's available to them locally, and regionally.”
Those resources helped Dave Volkman on his hops farm in Maineville, Ohio.
“Farmer Veteran Coalition says getting veterans into agriculture provides four things – purpose, opportunity, physical well-being and your psychological well-being – and I agree,” Volkman said.
The coalition is also now the holder of the Homegrown by Heroes Label program. It was first developed by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. The labels on food products indicate the company behind the product is at least 50 percent veteran owned.
The total number of members within the coalition doesn’t account for every farmer who identifies as a veteran. Natalie Monroe cites the 2017 Agriculture census data.
“We know we only represent about 10% of all the people out there who self-identify, so we still have a lot of room to grow,” she said. “Ohio, we're at about 900 veteran members. Kentucky is just over 700 about 750. And Indiana, we have about 550.”
You can taste some of Ohio Valley Hops homegrown hop flavors at Narrow Path Brewing in Loveland, Urban Artifact in Blue Ash, and Fibonacci Brewing Company in Cincinnati.