Special series

Randal Kelly and his dad started growing corn and squash on their family agriculture plot on the Navajo Nation back in 2019. Now in his fourth growing season, Kelly has added in more root vegetables, flowers, and herbs. At most, they’re growing on a one-acre section of their 10-acre plot. Kelly says this is just the start.  

“I would like to produce vegetables for the whole Navajo Nation, and the whole southwest,” he says. “We have the land and resources; they’re just not being worked.” 

Kelly was among a group of farmer veterans who gathered in New Mexico recently for a weeklong Armed to Farm training. He’s one of more than 350,000 veteran or active-duty service members involved in farming in the United States. Kelly is also now one of more than 900 farmer veterans who have completed the Armed to Farm training program first launched in 2013 through a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development. Armed to Farm is funded in part by ATTRA.  

Kelly was in the U.S. Army from 2001 to 2006, but he’s deeply rooted in agriculture. He lives on the same land he was raised on, and as a kid was in 4-H and FFA. He learned about the free Armed to Farm training through the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture, applied, and was selected.  

Randal Kelly New Mexico Armed to Farm“It was cool to see and hear stories about how farmers started similar to where I’m at right now and how they learned to use grants, have the drive, and make it a business,” he says. “I loved the training; it was amazing.”  

He adds the training was well planned, and the classroom sessions were paired with hands-on examples of the same topic. For Kelly, he says it was invaluable to see grant programs and sustainable agriculture methods at work. Plus, he says connecting with other like-minded farmers will continue to be a well of information.  

“My biggest thing right now is we’re a culture that grew vegetables and at some point, we lost that. I have black and white photos of my grandma standing next to 10-foot-high cornstalks – I want to be like that; that’s my goal. It’s part of our tradition that we’re losing.” 

Kelly says he took home ideas on how to mitigate erosion and conserve water, and on managed grazing techniques and cover cropping.  

“We are considered a food desert; we don’t have foods that are local,” Kelly says. “For me, it’s important that I provide better nutrition to my people. My mind is racing thinking about all the things I can do.” 

Mississippi farmer James Burch is among a growing network of farmers, ranchers, and land managers across the United States who are taking steps to catch and hold more water in the soil with the aim of regenerating the land and strengthening their businesses.  

More than 150 farms and ranches have joined the free and voluntary Soil for Water network, a regenerative agriculture project supported in part by NCAT and ATTRA. The project aims to include farmers and ranchers who discover and share land management practices that improve soil health, catch more water in soil, reduce erosion, sustain diverse plant and animal life, and filter out pollutants, all while improving the profitability of their businesses. 

Burch’s Mississippi farm has been in his family for a century. After a long military career, it’s only recently that he started putting the land back into production. He’s passionate about locally grown produce, grass-fed beef, and pasture-raised pigs. His main concern is mitigating erosion and ensuring that the soil on his land doesn’t wash away into nearby waterways. That’s why Burch joined the Soil for Water network. 

“It’s important to build the soil to the point that you’ve got some kind of cover on it, and any time you get these big rains, it doesn’t take your topsoil to another area,” said Burch. “The vision for my farm is big. I’m taking it one step at a time and using proven methodologies to grow healthy food above ground and maintain healthy soil below ground.”  

In addition to being an early Soil for Water network member, Burch is also an alum of NCAT and ATTRA’s Armed to Farm program.

When Don and Marcia Lyons started SeaLyon Farm in 2017, it was what they describe as a “clean slate.”    

ATTRA got us started on the right foot and gave us the right connections and guidance to navigate the Maine farmer support system and resources that exist already, but that can feel like drinking from a fire hose for the beginning farmer,” Don wrote. 

In particular, the Lyons took part in the Armed to Farm training program, along with more than 800 other farmer veterans since it was launched in 2013 through a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development. Armed to Farm is funded in-part by ATTRA.  

Now the farm, located in Alna, and nestled in the beautiful mid-coast Maine area just inland from Wiscasset, produces a host of organically grown vegetables, fruit (currently raspberries and elderberries), lavender, pumpkins, and honey. The harvest includes hay, as well. 

The Lyons also offer an assortment of value-added products such as pickles, salsa, 11 flavors of jam, and herbal tea. They turn the lavender they grow and the honey and beeswax they gather into lip balm, beard balm, candles, and lavender essential oil. 

Speaking of adding value, the farm also has become the site of Alna Fair, what Lyons calls “a surprisingly popular agritourism venue” on its 34 acres.  

“We run events year-round, and this was the secret to our success through the COVID-19 crisis,” Lyons wrote. Outdoor activities with lots of hand sanitizer (on every wagon), horse-drawn wagons and sleighs, good food, a bonfire, and games for the kids. This continues to be a growing attraction for the Alna area and looks to have a promising future; as the farm grows, so will the events.” 

Fortune and hard work can take a farm in many directions, but Lyons believes NCAT’s sustainable-agriculture programs can be wind at farmers’ backs as they start the journey. 

“The Armed to Farm established the foundation that a beginning farmer with even a moderate drive could build upon and be successful. Whether you want to farm livestock or vegetables, all the information is there to be employed. 

“I would most wholeheartedly recommend NCAT/ATTRA not just to veterans, but to any beginning farmer, whether it’s through Armed to Farm or any of their other workshops or programs to come. I am sure they will be well founded and fruitful! (Pun intended.)” 

Sara Creech, an Air Force veteran, has been farming in Indiana since 2012, and says she knew from the beginning that she wanted her farm to be certified organic. She’s one of more than 350,000 veteran or active-duty service members involved in farming in the United States. She’s also one of more than 800 farmer veterans who have completed the Armed to Farm training program first launched in 2013 through a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development. Armed to Farm is funded in part by ATTRA. 

Although Creech had no farming experience when she moved to her place back in 2012, you would never guess it seeing her farm today. We visited Sara’s operation, Blue Yonder Organic Farm. With help from Creech, along with the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Indiana and AgrAbility, we hosted an Armed to Farm training in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 2019. We spent a sunny May afternoon with a group of some 20 veterans touring Creech’s farm and learning from her experiences. 

Blue Yonder Organic Farm is a picturesque 43-acre diversified farm about an hour west of Indianapolis. Creech produces certified organic chicken, beef, and lamb, as well as certified organic vegetables. In addition, she sells eggs, honey, mushrooms, and maple syrup. She sells her products through farmers markets and some contract growing. 

It is inspiring to have watched Creech progress from a beginning farmer in 2013 when she attended our very first Armed to Farm training in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to a successful farmer and seasoned mentor teaching a new cohort of farmer veterans. And Creech is just one of many Armed to Farm alumni finding and sharing their passion and purpose in farming. As agriculture educators, we really couldn’t ask for more. 

“The Armed to Farm program is THE reason I was able to get started in farming. The opportunity to connect with other veterans and support each other’s dreams was life changing,” Creech said. “The education and support from NCAT/ATTRA guided me through starting a profitable farm that fuels my new–found passion for farming.”

Learn more about Creech in this archived Voices from the Field podcast episode, Veterans Discuss USDA Programs.

Alvina Maynard likes to say she didn’t seek out alpaca ranching, rather it found her. Maynard is a military veteran in Richmond, Kentucky. It was during a hotel stay while she was still with the Air Force that she saw a commercial about alpacas being farmed as livestock. And the rest is history.  

Today, Maynard and her family operate River Hill Ranch. “We grow clothes,” she says. River Hill has evolved into a greater mission of regenerative agriculture and education. Not only is she growing clothes but she has also developed children’s educational programs and an agritourism operation. River Hill Ranch is selling their Kentucky-grown, American-made alpaca sweaters, socks, and hats at the Lexington Farmers Market, through an online store, and in an on-site gift shop. For Maynard, being part of the resurgence in American-made sustainable manufacturing is a big deal. “Our value-added manufacturing happens within a 400-mile radius of our farm. All our products are grown regeneratively, and manufactured using sustainable methods right here in the U.S.”  

Alvina Maynard River Hill Ranch 2Maynard says when she set out to launch her alpaca farm, she had no idea of the sustainable agriculture resources and farmer-veteran community that already existed. “When I came on to my land, it wasn’t in great shape,” she says. “I overgrazed my fields when I first started. I didn’t know how to manage ruminants correctly. ATTRA gave me the tools I needed to be able to do that. Not only did my land rebound, but the forage production per acre has at least doubled if not tripled because of the resources ATTRA empowered me with. I am now able to grow much more with less.”  

Maynard credits ATTRA and our sustainable agriculture experts who’ve provided the alpaca industry with technical assistance with changing the industry for the better. “ATTRA influenced a whole livestock industry in the U.S. to rethink how they were managing their livestock in a way that regenerates the soil.” 

Maynard was recently a guest on ATTRA’s podcast series, Voices from the Field. Give it a listen!