We finally did it! We brought NCAT’s Armed to Farm (ATF) training to California. The first California Armed to Farm training was host to 27 individual beginning farmers representing all branches of the military. Some came from as far away as Arizona and Washington in their efforts to bridge the gap between the military service and a career in farming. The veterans present at the CA ATF expressed many reasons for pursuing careers in farming, including being their own boss, applying structures and systematic military training to a business, and the desire for physical and mental space away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
As the first ATF training on this side of the country, the response was overwhelming: We received 60 applications for the 30 available spaces. Additionally, the training’s focus on sustainable and regenerative farming practices and business development attracted an array of veteran farmers from diverse backgrounds with varying levels of experience.
The ATF training included daily workshop sessions which covered many topics such as sustainable soils, record keeping, business planning, land access and much more. In addition to the NCAT staff presenters: Sustainable Agriculture Specialists Thea Rittenhouse, Martin Guerena, Omar Rodriguez and Regional Director Rex Dufour, experts from FarmLink, United States Department of Agriculture, California Alliance with Family Farmers, University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program and several agriculture lenders shared resources and expertise at the training. Morning workshop sessions then gave way to lunch and afternoon farm visits. Each afternoon the group traveled to a local farm, where the farmers led tours of their properties and shared some of the wisdom and knowledge gained through years of farming and ranching. Many of the farmers utilized sustainable, organic, and regenerative practices, and they were happy to have honest conversations about the challenges and opportunities in farming.
It was an intensive week of training, but we’re proud to say that the most common desire expressed on our daily evaluations was for the training to be expanded. Here are a few of the comments we received from participants:
“Resources, Resources, Resources! The event was piled with so many wonderful and pertinent resources. The information was thought provoking, the presenters were so extremely knowledgeable and personable and the accommodations were good and food abundant. Absolutely wonderful all around!”
“The staff were amazing, respectful, and I am deeply grateful for their service to me and the other veterans. I would not have been able to do this financially without ATTRA’s support. Thank You! Thank You!”
“A great source of education and networking, I probably learned as much from the other attendees as I did from the presenters.”
Keep scrolling for photos and information about the farms we visited:
Our first farm visit took us to Sequoia Farms where veterans learned about orchard irrigation, cover crops, and soil management. We all got our hands dirty with a bit of digging to examine soil structure and biological activity, which is thriving under the abundance of cover crops at Sequoia Farms.
It was a beautiful day at Say Hay Farms. Farmer Chris Hay talked about his business and crop planning/management practices. Participants toured the farm and learned about cultivation of diverse vegetables, pastured poultry, and incorporating native species habitat for farm health. Chris has bat box installations because a single bat, like the Mexican free tail which is common on California farms, can consume its weight in moths and other flying insects in a single night!
Orchard floor management, nutrient cycling and hedgerows were the topics of the day at Paddock Farm. Some walked away with fistfulls of sweet grapefruit and the novel taste of whole green almonds
(seed coat and all) in their mouths. Farmer Brian Paddock stressed the importance of developing lasting relationships with neighboring farmers who have served as great teachers. Sheep borrowed from one neighbor don’t seem to mind mowing Biran’s orchard alleys for him, a great tradeoff that reduces Brian’s management costs while adding fertility to his soil.
A happy group of veterans on a tour of Cloverleaf Farm, owned by Emma Torbert. Experimentation and diversity were the common themes on Emma’s farm. The challenges of keeping skilled labor on the farm are a real hurdle for many farmers in California and across the country. She has addressed this challenge by exploring various business structures. Currently the farm is run as a cooperative in which partners share the labor and the profits.
At Yolo Land and Cattle, the group toured Scott Stone’s sprawling beef cattle operation to learn about grazing, predator control, and restoration of sensitive areas. Riparian areas, which are highly sensitive to the impact of large herbivores like cattle, also tend to be the most biodiverse areas on any farm. Protection of these zones helps to keep waterways cleaner and more resistant to erosion.
Mike Maddison had a wealth of knowledge to share with us on our trip to Yolo Bulb. Value added processing, succession planning, and flower production were among the many topics discussed on the tour. As an aging farmer, Mike has been slowly reducing his responsibilities on the farm by transferring some of his acreage to a Korean woman, whose niche is selling Asian vegetables to restaurants, and a couple who are taking over part of his olive orchard. A practical and pragmatic farmer, Mike began his farming career in the Sacramento Valley by looking at potential markets and narrowing in on niche crops that were under-represented in the area. He has also been able to manage the 20-acre farm without the help of hired labor through careful crop selection and planning.