Sara Creech wasn’t expecting to find a farm hand when she attended NCAT’s Armed to Farm Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Workshop in June 2013. And Alicia Moore had no idea that attending the workshop would soon lead her to central Indiana; she had been planning to move from her home in Michigan to New Mexico. Six months after sharing a room during the six-day workshop, though, Alicia and Sara are working together on Sara’s Blue Yonder Organic Farm in North Salem, Indiana.
Armed to Farm was held from June 17-22 in Fayetteville, Ark., and was open to both veterans and spouses of veterans. Twenty-eight military participants from 14 states came together for classroom instruction, farm tours, and hands-on activities designed to help beginning veteran farmers manage risks in their operations. NCAT’s partners at the University of Arkansas arranged for lodging, meals, and classroom instruction space on the U of A campus. Hands-on learning took place at several local farms. Thanks to NCAT’s partners and funding from the USDA, the workshop was free to attendees; the only cost to them was their travel.
Sara and Alicia are both veterans who came to farming after their military service. Sara, who served as an Air Force Surgical Nurse during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), began farming in Jan. 2012 after the death of her husband, an Air Force pilot. Sara said farming was the best therapy she found. She heard about Armed to Farm through the website of NCAT’s ATTRA – National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.
Sara said, “I was excited to see that there was a program that combined military veterans with learning about farming. I had never heard of the two groups being put together and it sounded genius to me.” Sara had never been on a working farm before she started her own operation. She hoped that by attending Armed to Farm, she would be able to see “how real people were farming and what that looked like.” Because she already had planted fruit trees, raspberries, and blackberries on her place, she was looking forward to touring NCAT Specialist Guy Ames’ orchard and nursery. Sara also looked forward to learning about pastured poultry.
Sara said, “Thanks to the great information at Armed to Farm, I have also begun working with our local NRCS to develop a farm conservation program and am applying for several assistance projects…I have also realized the importance of doing thorough business planning and will have this completed over the next month or two.”
Sara also reported that, after attending Armed to Farm, she added 100 pastured chickens and four bee hives to her operation. Alicia moved to Sara’s farm in September, and began helping Sara with her extensive chore list, including clearing brush, working on fencing, caring for the animals, and butchering and processing chickens. The two sold the pastured poultry through an already-established vegetable Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), as well as to friends and family.
Alicia served as a Cryptologic Language Analyst in the Army and was deployed to Iraq during the first phase of OIF. She heard about the workshop through a non-military friend from graduate school who knew she was interested in farming. Like Sara, Alicia didn’t have a background in agriculture. She came to Armed to Farm “to learn anything and everything, to take away as much as I could,” including learning more about CSAs and livestock handling.
Alicia said this about Armed to Farm’s impact on her: “The program not only put me in touch with Sara and showed me the different types of agricultural production and models, but it gave me hope…At Armed to Farm I was able to meet other veterans who are making agriculture their new mission…They are trying and succeeding at agriculture, and if they can do it, I can, too!”
Armed to Farm had an additional impact on these two dedicated farmer veterans. During the workshop, Sara and Alicia quickly realized that they shared a hope of using agriculture not just as a way to make a living, but also as a way to help their fellow veterans.
Alicia said that she and Sara “both wanted to have a teaching component to our farms. I had always planned on incorporating a veterans training program to my (eventual) farm.” To help make that a reality, Alicia is working on grant proposals to raise money for an on-farm training program/retreat for veterans.
Alicia explained, “We both liked the Armed to Farm model, and our training will be similar: a class component and then a hands-on component, along with books and hand-outs.” She said she would like to see the veteran training become an annual or bi-annual event on the farm. Sara would like to add a few internship positions, and offer “incubator farm enterprise opportunities” for veterans to use her farm resources, such as her tractor and other equipment, land, and client base, to get their own operations started.
As one season on the farm ends, Sara and Alicia are planning for next year. With Alicia committed to staying at Blue Yonder for the foreseeable future, the two plan on starting their own fruit and vegetable CSA, with baskets offered free of charge to families who have military service members deployed. They plan to have a booth at the local farmers’ market, and to expand the pastured poultry flock to 900 chickens.
As they work on building the farm, they also are building a vision. Sara described her “ultimate farm dream” in this way:
“I want my farm to mimic nature, where there is a variety of life and fauna, working with an ebb and flow that makes it uniquely healthy. I believe that by combining a variety of farm enterprises, interwoven and connected, the farm can support and even thrive for its community.”
To follow Sara and Alicia’s progress, find Blue Yonder Organic Farm on Facebook.