By Evan Eagan

Uncertainty. Variability. Adversity. These are just a few of the hardships even the least seasoned farmer is all too familiar with. From the rising cost of resources to changing weather patterns, the ability to adapt and overcome is the bread and butter of successful farmers.

For Farmer Veteran Coalition member Sean Carnahan, however, the ability to adapt and overcome led him down the path to a new career in viticulture.

Bound by a sense of duty and a desire to do more for his country, Carnahan enlisted in the Army in 2009 after serving two years in the Coast Guard Reserve. Upon graduating basic training, Carnahan attended Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, before being stationed in Vicenza, Italy, with 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment.

“I wanted a greater challenge,” said Carnahan, a Shelton, Washington, native. “I was as fit, or more fit, than most guys, and I knew I could do more. I had more to give, so I joined.”

As a paratrooper, Carnahan deployed to Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province in 2012 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, where his unit conducted combat patrols, casualty evacuations, forward operating base closures and personal security detachments.

Unlike many veterans, when it was time for Carnahan to separate from the Army in 2014, he had a well-defined plan in place.

“I planned on getting out and using my GI Bill to become a helicopter pilot,” said Carnahan. “I wasn’t too aware of the job market at the time, but helos were familiar to me. I did some research and talked to some chief warrant officers and that was my plan.”

As he was executing on his plan to become a helicopter pilot, Carnahan was required to take a health and environment class where he had to complete a community-based learning project. Through this project, which called for him to establish a honey bee colony, Carnahan was introduced to agriculture and ecology, an experience he says had a profound impact on him.

“This was all completely new to me so I met with a local bee expert to learn the process and how they (bees) fit into the eco-system,” said Carnahan. “I was fascinated by it. It really got me interested in learning how the whole ecosystem works.”

Still set on becoming a helicopter pilot, Carnahan continued training until May 2015 when suddenly his plans were thrown into jeopardy. Afflicted with a medical issue while serving in the military, the condition grew more severe, eventually landing him in a Veterans Affairs hospital.

Carnahan’s condition continued to worsen, leading to a weight loss of 30 pounds over the course of a six month period. To combat the illness doctors permanently prescribed him a medication that prohibited him from operating heavy machinery, effectively ending his career as a helicopter pilot.

“I couldn’t fly anymore,” he said. “I felt like the rug was ripped out from underneath me. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

Distraught about his pilot career coming to an abrupt end, and with a new fiancé by his side, pressure began to mount on Carnahan to find a new career path. Thinking back to his community-based learning project and his newfound appreciation for ecology, Carnahan wanted to find a way to work within the ecosystem, so he settled on landscape architecture.

Moving forward on his new career path, Carnahan began taking classes at a local college. Also interested in growing small crops while he attended school, it was during this time Carnahan found Farmer Veteran Coalition.

Though his contact with FVC was minimal through most of 2015, two days before Christmas Carnahan received a call about an opportunity that he described as “almost too good to be true.”

The opportunity presented to Carnahan was with Stoller Family Estate, a family-owned and operated vineyard and winery in Oregon’s Dundee Hills, inviting him to join their team at a competitive wage for on-the-job training to become a vineyard manager, while also paying for a two-year curriculum in vineyard management at Chemeketa Community College.

“When FVC came to me with this opportunity I was excited, but as a veteran I was skeptical,” said Carnahan. “Legit opportunities like this are few and far between where companies actually want to help veterans. Stoller Family Estate definitely supports veterans.”

Stoller Family Estate has a track record of honoring veterans. Their president, Gary Mortensen, is an award winning director of two documentary films telling the stories of Oregonians who served in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“You don’t often find people willing to take a gamble on a veteran like Stoller Family Estate did,” said Carnahan. “Because they gave me this opportunity, I want to work extremely hard for them. For the rest of my life I’m going to look back on this opportunity Stoller Family Estate has given. It’s life changing.”

Carnahan will begin working full-time at Stoller Family Estate on March 21, and has the following advice for veterans seeking opportunities in agriculture:

“Reach out to the FVC,” he said. “The whole FVC is there to help vets in transition and provide real opportunities. If you come into the industry with the same drive it takes to be successful in the military, you will thrive.”

For more information about Stoller Family Estate, please visit their website at www.stollerfamilyestate.com.