Armed to Farm connects veterans to ag production
A national program that assists military veterans in launching farming projects now has a program specifically for Montana service members. Armed to Farm provides training, technical assistance, and a network of resources to veterans who are operating or starting sustainable crop and livestock enterprises.
The program is overseen by the National Center for Appropriate Technology, a national nonprofit organization headquartered in Butte, Mont., with the mission of helping people by championing small-scale, local, and sustainable solutions to reduce poverty, promote healthy communities, and protect natural resources.
Tammy Howard is an NCAT program specialist who oversees the Montana Armed to Farm program. She said the national Armed to Farm program has been in existence for more than five years, and was started by an ag specialist with NCAT who was also a veteran and a poultry farmer. “He found a lot of therapy from his farm and wanted to share that with other veterans. He has since left NCAT to farm full time.”
Last summer NCAT received a $240,000 grant from the USDA to bring the program specifically to Montana. The goal is to develop, over a three-year time period, a program to work with approximately 100 beginning farmers who are military veterans in Montana and the intermountain west. Along with Great Falls Community College, Montana Farmers Union, Alternative Energy Resources Organization, the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition and the Farmers Veteran Coalition, the project offered its first week-long intensive training last August in Great Falls.
The week included classroom learning on business planning, financial records and documents, goal setting, marketing channels, and fiscal management, along with daily tours of local sustainable farming enterprises. Speakers included specialists in market gardening, pasture management and poultry enterprises, and representatives from credit organizations and USDA offices, including the Natural Resources and Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency.
“The training is a week-long program where participants spend about half their time in the classroom, and the other half at area farms,” said Howard. “We focus on products that go into a state’s economy, as opposed to commodity exports. We’re not training people to get involved in commodity-based agriculture – there is already a lot of information on that from Extension. Our focus with technical assistance is sustainable agriculture.”
NCAT’s definition of sustainable agriculture is farming that meets environmental, economic and social objectives simultaneously.
The training last fall was limited to 30 participants, mainly to ensure quality one-on-one time and attention to individual development.
“The participants came from all different types of backgrounds, and several have been farming for a couple of years,” said Howard. “In our application process we try to choose people who are serious about farming – those who have progressed beyond the ‘exploration stage’ – so we can help them develop and build on their enterprise goals.”
Most attendees were at the stage of their business where they have land and/or livestock secured. Projects included dairy cattle and goats, certified vegetable farmers, and cow-calf and pasture-based enterprises. The tours scheduled throughout the week were planned to provide exposure to different enterprises and allow attendees the chance to see an operation at work. Visits included Prairie Heritage Farm – a diversified, small-scale operation, Groundworks Farm, which grows and sells meat and vegetables without synthetic additives, Granger’s Farm, which produces Certified Angus Beef, and Bird Creek Ranch, a working ranch with diversified heritage breed livestock.
Another program of NCAT called ATTRA, which stands for Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas, provides a follow-up network of resources for veterans who have enrolled in Armed to Farm. Funded primarily by the USDA’s Rural Business Cooperative Service, ATTRA is a national network of resources including publications, program specialists, and technical information on alternative farming methods and sustainable ag production practices. “ATTRA is one of NCAT’s biggest programs,” said Howard. “It provides a strong follow-up support system and helps leverage the information the Armed to Farm participants learn during their training,” said Howard.
Howard said the vocation of agriculture, in many ways, is a match for Montana veterans. The state at one time had the highest number of veterans per capita, falling behind only recently to Alaska, and agriculture is the number once industry in Montana. Even those who did not grow up on a farm or ranch enterprise are likely familiar with agriculture.
“A lot of veterans come from rural communities, and Montana is very rural,” she said. “While the work of farming is not necessarily therapeutic in a physical sense, the lifestyle can be in a mental sense. Our number one goal is to have more veterans farming in Montana.”
Howard said of their current group of participants, approximately 50 percent strive to make farming their full-time career. “Some have other jobs, and some are still in active duty and waiting to retire,” she said.
Although the program does not provide capital, Howard said their goal is to provide the training and resources so participants can apply and be approved for financing.
Mystery Harris, originally from Los Angeles, and now residing in Fort Harrison, Mont., has been in the military for 15 years – six years of active duty in the U.S. Army and the rest in Army Reserves. She said she decided to apply and get involved with the Armed to Farm program because she felt they would give her the tools and knowledge to become successful as a beginning farmer.
“I really enjoyed the process and information that I learned in the program, and would highly recommend it to other veterans who would like to start farming as well,” she says.
Harris’s farming scope is diversified livestock, including sheep and chickens, with plans in the near future to obtain yaks and cows to add to her enterprise. “I recently increased my sheep herd from six to 13 sheep, and my chicken flock from 15 to 70 chickens, and I plan on getting two yaks and two cows. It is my goal to start selling my sheep, chickens, eggs, yak, and beef to consumers.”
She said the program was a great fit for her as she works to build her enterprise in an industry she enjoys.
“I think farming is a good vocation for veterans because it provides stress relief working with animals and growing things. Being in the service has taught me to have patience and to enjoy the little things in life.”
For more information on Armed to Farm, NCAT and ATTRA, visit http://www.ncat.org.