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Small-scale ag fits farmers following military career
(Editor’s note: This is the third of a four-part series on the experiences U.S. military veterans in the Mid-Atlantic region have had starting farm businesses.)
By JAMIE CLARK TIRALLA
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Many military veterans have traveled the world.
They have experience working with complex technology and systems and planning on a global scale.
But for veterans called to a second career in agriculture, the picture often looks much different.
Farmers who are veterans seem happy to shed the fast-paced lifestyle with its large-scale infrastructure and global logistics for small-scale farms focused on diversity. Denise Hudson speculates that part of the draw towards small-scale agriculture is that it’s more manageable for the inexperienced farmer and easier to get into.
She and her husband, David, own Hudson Heritage Farms near Elmo, Va., near the North Carolina border.
They raise several heritage breeds of livestock, including long horned Highland cattle.
“We first saw Highland cattle in the 1980s, in Scotland,” says Hudson. The shaggy haired, dual purpose breed was first imported to the United States in the 1880s.
There are estimated to be about 10,000 Highland cattle in North America and it is listed among the “recovering” breeds on the Livestock Breed Conservancy’s conservation priority list.
“We decided to focus on heritage breeds as much as possible. There is a need to conserve those breeds,” she says, “and the product is a lot nicer. Meat from heritage breeds is more flavorful and has more fat.”
Conservation of heritage breeds is something that is shared by many new farmers including veteran farmers.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition and the Livestock Breed Conservancy have been in partnership since 2012. With support from the Virginia Cooperative Extension, they offer “From Service to Stewardship,” a workshop geared towards veterans interested in farming with heritage breeds.
Michael O’Gorman is the founder of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. He says that many veterans are called to farming, but stresses that his organization doesn’t advocate solely for farm ownership. Veterans have a broad range of important skills, he says, and there are numerous careers in agriculture.
At least one local veteran farmer is taking a different approach. Justen Garrity grew up in Columbia, Md. He served five years of active duty in the Army National Guard.
His interest was in eco-friendly businesses. He was researching recycling ventures when a statistic caught his eye.
“Two-thirds of every trash truck is made up of compostable materials,” says Garrity. Looking further, he found a lack of businesses that were turning food waste into compost. And so, in 2010, he launched Veteran Compost.
“It makes sense as a business to repurpose wasted food and create a product that can improve soil health,” Garrity says. “It’s very exciting to be at the beginning of the cycle for agriculture producers. It blows my mind that soil we produce ends up growing food that people buy in the grocery store.”
On Cheerful Chicken Farm in Disputanta, Va., farmer Shawn Alf’s goal is simple, if not idyllic: Produce enough to feed one hundred people.
He and his wife Heather own the farm and are working to become fully integrated with livestock and produce.
His mentality is a little different from most of his neighbors in southeastern Virginia, he said.
But, he says, he doesn’t want to get to the point where he doesn’t know the people who are buying his food.
“My neighbor just wants to farm. He doesn’t want to sell to or talk to people. I have no interest in that,” Alf says. “I want to know my customers and how my food is impacting them.”
Alf served in the Army National Guard for 15 years, seven spent on active duty.
He was a communication officer and holds a master’s degree in communications. Since he was a young child, he says, he’s dreamed of owning a farm.
His farming inspiration comes in part from “One-Straw Revolution”, a manifesto on sustainable agriculture, written by Japanese scientist Masanobu Fukuoka.
Alf says because he didn’t grow up on a farm, he doesn’t have any preconceived notions about what can or can’t be done. He’s able to be more pragmatic and willing to take risks.
Bob Miller grew up on a conventional dairy farm in Caroline County, Md. But it wasn’t until he was half a world away, fighting in Iraq, that he was able to see a different future for his family farm.
During his deployment, Miller says, the family dairy suffered through some of the hardest years.
“Milk prices were very low and production costs were very high,” explains Miller. “I became instantly afraid that maybe we wouldn’t be milking cows when I got back. Or that the family would be out of farming all together.”
Miller took notice of the small family farms in Iraq.
He saw that many farmers were direct marketing their own products.
He knew it would be infinitely harder back in the United States because of regulations, but reasoned that if his family could market their milk directly, promoting their grass-fed production model, they could get a fairer price and keep the farm.
“It was a fairy tale idea,” he says, but one that turned out to be more reality than fiction.
His parents were skeptical when he proposed the idea of starting a creamery.
Nevertheless, they supported Miller as he launched Nice Farms Creamery.
Today, they milk about 60 cows, which graze on 120 acres of pasture. Their milk and yogurt products are sold at the farm’s store and local farmers markets, as well as a handful of retail stores in Maryland and Delaware.
“It’s breathed a little life into the family. It’s still a tough business - very weather dependent. Last year, the drought punished our milk supply,” he admits, but, “it’s livened the whole family up. There’s no more talk of selling cows. And there’s pride in the fact that people drink our milk.”