In 2011, Eric Grandon was searching his land for an answer.
Eric served nearly 20 years in the Army, completing six deployments to the Middle East including combat tours during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom II. In 2011, Eric found himself in the middle of a PTSD flashback that left him unable to continue his work as a physical therapy assistant. Without work, Eric retreated to his property in West Virginia.
“My friend and now Director of the Veterans to Agriculture program in West Virginia told me to give farming a try and so I did,” Eric says. “I applied to the Armed to Farm program in 2013 and got in. Armed to Farm was my first agricultural conference.”
Armed to Farm is NCAT’s sustainable agriculture training program for military veterans. The multi-day program includes a mix of classroom sessions—covering topics such as risk management, business planning, and marketing—and hands-on activities at successful livestock, crop, fruit, and agritourism operations. NCAT, with help from partners at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, offered the first week-long Armed to Farm training in 2013.
Eric was quick to take his friend’s advice despite little knowledge of the agricultural community.
“When I applied, I knew absolutely nothing about farming,” Eric says. “I hadn’t even raised a garden but I was hoping and actually needing to find that something. The best thing was being able to come home to my wife and tell her that this was what I wanted to do.”
Taking a step outside of his comfort zone, Eric attended his first Armed to Farm event with an open mind. While learning about the program and what it has to offer, two things in particular caught Eric’s interest.
“Having no experience or knowledge of farming, two words caught my attention: ‘sustainable’ and ‘diversify,’” Eric says. “I had never heard of the sustainable concept before: improve the land while working it. Now I’m a sustainable nut. We use beneficial insects instead of pesticides. We have a worm composter and so on. For ‘diversify,’ I give [NCAT Northeast Regional Office Director] Andy Pressman credit. We were named the perfect small concept farm by the Department of Agriculture. We do vegetables all year, mainly for farm to school, as well as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and watermelon. We have about 80 layers. I grow and process Sweet Sorghum Molasses the old-fashioned way, and honey. We just started selling honey bees and equipment and also train new beekeepers.”
Eric took what he learned at the Armed to Farm program and hasn’t looked back since. What started as a simple conversation with a friend has now grown into the successful Sugar Bottom Farm.
“We have gone huge with honey bees this year,” Eric says. “Who knew you could get rich dealing in bugs. I simply market through Facebook. The main take away from the program is there are experts just a click or call away. Any and every time I’ve needed specific information I go to the ATTRA website. Whether I have pest control issues or need ideas on how to update my business plan. They are literally my one-stop shop.”
Eric found value in more than just the agricultural knowledge he gained from the Armed to Farm program. He also took the program’s mission and values to heart, encouraging other veterans in his home state to pursue careers in agriculture.
“We are now fourth-year farmers,” Eric says. “We were the first farm inducted into the Vet to Ag program. We now have well over 300 veteran farmers in West Virginia, too. I am the poster child of our program. Agriculture has literally saved my life. Please understand, I was deemed unemployable by the VA, totally and permanently disabled. On the bright side, my farm hosted a Veteran Agriculture summit on March 8th of this year. I also testified before the House Agriculture Committee in DC last year.”
The Armed to Farm program provided Eric the support he needed to find his purpose in agriculture. He is the first to recognize those furthering the program’s purpose.
“I have stayed in contact with [NCAT Southeast Regional Office Director] Margo Hale and Andy since the original Armed to Farm,” Eric says. “They’re both a wealth of knowledge and are both very passionate about what they do, especially with our veterans. I use ATTRA’s information on about everything. I definitely recommend Armed to Farm for any veteran looking to find their niche in agriculture. It’s truly helped me get where I am today.”
Follow Sugar Bottom Farm on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SugarBottomFarm/.
To learn more about Armed to Farm, visit http://www.ncat.org/armedtofarm/.
Visit ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture’s website for free publications, webinars, tutorials, videos, and many more resources for farmers: https://attra.ncat.org/.
Guest post by NCAT’s Outreach Intern Olivia Morris