Armed to Farm NH
With a light wind blowing the American flag, 35 people lined up next to the swimming pool at East Hill Farm with Mount Monadnock standing proudly in the background. There were 28 military veterans from all over the northeast United States, plus seven NCAT staff and interns. None of them left without learning something and gaining new connections and friendships.
Armed to Farm is a national NCAT program that helps military veterans make the transition to an agricultural career. Since 2013, NCAT has run 14 trainings and has had well over 300 graduates from almost every state in the country. The New Hampshire-based Armed to Farm event was part of a three-year USDA grant for programs in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
The training took place at the Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy, New Hampshire, a family-run retreat and resort business and agritourism destination. Participants had private rooms, many of which looked out onto Mount Monadnock – the local hiking mecca. Between meals and classes, we all headed out and spent time with the goats, chickens, cows, and horses. During meals and classes, we made jokes about the guinea hens.
Every morning, after breakfast, we spent our time in a classroom setting where NCAT specialists gave short lessons on farm business planning, crops, livestock, and pasture management. Speakers from various agencies came to talk on a variety of topics. USDA’s Farm Service Agency presented on financing a farm. Land For Good discussed accessing land. A local land trust talked about conservation easements. An environmental lawyer walked us through farm legal structures. And that wasn’t the half of it. The lively crowd of participants were full of questions and the specialists welcomed it.
Every afternoon, we took trips to farm operations in the Monadnock region, trying to get as diverse an array of experiences as possible. On Monday, we spent time learning about agritourism at the Inn at East Hill Farm and worked together as a group to rip down more than a hundred feet of old fence line in record time. Then, on Tuesday, we learned about vegetable production in fields and greenhouses at Green Wagon Farm and got to see a presentation about raising honey bees at NH Honey Bee. Wednesday, we visited pork, lamb, and fruit operations at Mayfair Farm and then traveled out into the woods to learn about mushroom cultivation from Dave Wichland. Thursday, we saw a vegetable CSA operation at Picadilly Farm (and cleared out the pests in their Pick-Your-Own fields by squashing one bug at a time), we played with chickens at Wingate and, finally, we learned the ins and outs of an rganic dairy at Brookfield Farm.
Every night, we put our feet up, socialized, and slept well. On Friday morning, we had some exciting conversations about marketing. Then, we had a boisterous panel discussion with local farmers from Archway Farm and Echo Farm, plus one of the event participants herself who owns a restaurant in upstate New York. Then, after one last delicious meal from the Inn at East Hill Farm, everyone said their goodbyes.
Ever since I began doing community work, over a decade ago, I have been having the debate with my coworkers: do we focus on a deep impact in a few people’s lives or do we try to lightly impact many people? Armed to Farm is certainly a program that goes for deep impact. I watched participants grapple with their dreams. “Is this actually what I want?” “Can I actually make this happen?” Then I watched them build the foundations that would carry those dreams.
The impact on the participants was visible over the week. Participants reported that they plan to introduce livestock into their operations to improve soil health. Other participants reported how they would improve their business and marketing plans. One of the participants found a reason to focus more on her writing by telling the stories of farmers like the ones in the room. Another participant developed a support network that he could rely on in ways he didn’t have before.
The Armed to Farm training gave participants tools and a network to begin or, in some cases, improve their farming lifestyle. More than that, however, it was an inspiration to them.
And the inspiration was not limited to the participants. My wife and I have, since the earliest days of our relationship, wanted to be homesteaders: living closer to the land and raising a family. Over the course of the week, I met a group of individuals with similar goals. Some of them had already committed time and money toward those goals. Some were in a similar position to me and ready to take the leap. I know, now, that we’re all in this together.
I learned a lot during this, my first Armed to Farm. For example, a group of veterans who hadn’t met each other six hours earlier can work together to achieve more work in an hour than most groups could achieve in three. But I also learned that farmers and veterans have something fundamental in common. We’re all working toward making the world around us just a little bit better.