Trading Boots: Veterans in Agriculture

Today we’d like to feature a success story from the Cornell Small Farms Program in New YorkState, posted by Alyssa Couse, an Ag Outreach Educator in Jefferson County, NY. The NYS Veterans in Ag is a project of the NE Beginning Farm Project and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Alyssa’s role with the program is to help promote the initiative to local veteran agencies, veterans and their families, as well as to provide resources for soldiers transitioning from the military into agriculture. 

Small Farms Program Mission & Vision

“We envision a future where diverse and vibrant urban and rural farms build human capacity, revitalize communities, supply regional food systems, and foster ecological resilience in a changing world. We help farmers get expert assistance to facilitate all phases of small farm business development, from initial growth to optimization to maturity.”

Jefferson County, NY is home to two prominent ways of life: agriculture and the military.  The proximity of Fort Drum to local farms and agribusinesses creates opportunity for the two worlds to collide.  As different as these lifestyles seem, there are actually many glaring similarities. Each requires a dedicated, responsible, compassionate, hardworking people who have the ability to wear multiple hats.  Technology is being incorporated more and more in each industry, thus creating more opportunities in information technology and engineering.  As farms expand with more animals and employees, management skills are required to keep the operation moving efficiently.  Soldiers with experience in diesel mechanics could apply their skills to farm equipment and hauling trucks.  These are just a few examples of how the agricultural industry is in need of a workforce that is remarkably compatible with the skills of the military service men and woman who are transitioning into civilian life.

Through the Cornell Small Farms Program Beginning Farmer’s Project, who’s mission states “We help farmers get expert assistance to facilitate all phases of small farm business development, from initial growth to optimization to maturity”,  Farm Ops was born.  This effort brings resources to veterans who want to enter the agriculture industry.  From starting their own small farm, working on a local farm or for an agribusiness, veterans have access to a statewide network.  Online courses, business planning resources, workshops, and on the job training opportunities are available to guide veterans in their transition from military to agriculture.  As the Agricultural Outreach Educator for Jefferson County, I wanted to explore a real-life example of the project at work.

Here is a local success story for inspiration.  Infantry Captain Samuel Palmer is trading his Army boots for muck boots.  With a love for the outdoors and a passion to help the food system, Sam decided that agriculture would be his next venture.  This spring, the Palmer family will be returning home to New Hampshire to start Sapling Forest Farm.  The farm name is a product of Sam’s initials S.A.P. with his son being the “sapling.”  Although he had worked on a few farms throughout high school and college, Sam did not come from a farming background.  Utilizing the Beginning Farmer’s Project resources such as business planning materials and attending events/workshops, Sam’s dream has become a reality.  He most recently received a certificate from the Produce Safety Alliance’s Grower Training that satisfied FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) regulation by attending a training held at Jefferson County Cornell Cooperative Extension.

To gain some hands-on experience, Sam sought guidance from a local farmer from which he was buying organic pork from.  Sam has been spending most weekends helping Dani Baker and Dave Belding of Cross Island Farms on Wellesley Island, NY.  This was a perfect pairing as Sam was interested in learning organic livestock and produce and Cross Island Farm is a very diverse organic farm with livestock including pigs, goats and beef cattle, greenhouses of fresh produce and an edible forest garden.  His military experience has helped him handle high pressure situations that arise, such as when a “goat rodeo”, or goats escaping their pen, ensues.  Keeping grounded and having strong communication and management skills are crucial to farming and were instilled in his years in combat.  In addition, building spreadsheets and online marketing skills are tools from the military that he can now add to his farming tool box.

On the weekends he isn’t on Cross Island Farms, Sam is traveling to New Hampshire to work on his farm.  After a weekend spent planting winter rye on his land, Sam was elated to share the experience with Dave and Dani. “Guess what I did last Saturday! I worked on MY farm.”  The support and guidance he has received from his mentors, local educators, and Cornell Small Farms Program were unexpected benefits for Sam during this transition.  He encourages anyone who is interested in agriculture to simply contact a farmer and get out there!

Sam Palmer’s transition into farming is evidence that having a farming background is not a pre-requisite.   Experience can be taught.  What cannot be taught as easily are the fundamental attributes of a successful farmer: work ethic, dedication, responsibility, passion, and the desire to work hard for an ideal they believe in.  Sam and Dave agree on the advice they would offer to other veterans curious about agriculture: reach out to those in the industry and get a taste of what it has to offer.

More recently, outreach efforts included a local farm tour to help showcase another successful transition from the military to agriculture.  On May 8th, 2017, Center Dale Farm hosted a farm tour for active duty military and veterans interested in agriculture. Dave and Evelyn Hawthorne have about 80 head of Black Angus beef cattle in Rutland, NY, and enjoyed sharing their story of how they transitioned their lifestyle from military to farm.  Dave is a Vietnam veteran himself and gave invaluable advice to the attendees. Materials from the Cornell Small Farms Program Northeast Beginning Farmer’s Project were provided and attendees were encouraged to utilize the resources, scholarships, and workshops, etc. available to them. Educators from Cornell Cooperative Extension and representatives from Senator Patty Ritchie’s and NYS Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush’s offices, as well as Peter Elmer from the Farm Service Agency and Brian Ashley from the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, were there as resources for the veterans. Despite the snowy weather, 15 people attended the event and the day was filled with inspiring conversations, beautiful black cattle grazing on the hillside, and a warm local beef barbecue picnic.

 

For more information about the Cornell Small Farms Program and their work with veterans, check out these resources here:

  • http://www.nebeginningfarmers.org/
  • http://www.nebeginningfarmers.org/projects/farmer-veterans/

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