As a disabled Veteran and beginning, woman farmer, I understand the many obstacles Veterans face when embarking upon the important mission of sustainable food production, with an ultimate goal of food security for themselves/family, community and our Nation. Having been surrounded by a family of conventional farmers, then working with livestock all throughout my life, I fully grasp the importance of promoting sustainable food-production practices. I also possess a Masters Degree in Wellness Programming. This education, and subsequent research into wellness topics, cements my belief our Nation needs more conscientious farmers/ranchers, and a more wholesome food supply. After being involved with organic community- and personal-gardens most of my adult life, I embarked upon my own organic farming venture in June of 2009.
Falcon Ridge Farm is a 40 acre parcel (20/20 woods/pasture) in South-Central Missouri bordering Mark Twain National Forest on two sides. There is a large organic vegetable garden, smaller herb garden, and an orchard (with 2-3 apple, pear, peach, plum, and cherry trees each). The pastures are subdivided into eight smaller pastures for rotation. Here I currently employ these practices; IPM and beneficial insect encouragement (supporting bee hives, and parasitic-insect attraction), poultry and small scale livestock production with rotational grazing (layers, and dairy and meat goats), natural soil quality improvement, organic and holistic practices (to include anthelmintics), wildlife preservation, and more.
Additionally, I have always held the belief I would both help to educate my “community” as well as feed them. Since 2010 I have been an active host farm with WWOOF.USA hosting/educating over 20 volunteers, who come to learn organic production practices, and I currently have a veteran volunteer. I also serve as a Farmer Veteran mentor. Additionally, Falcon Ridge will be a host farm for the “Veterans to Farmers” seminar series coordinated by Fort Leonard Wood’s Sustainable Ozarks Partnership, an organization established to build a strong economy among communities surrounding Fort Leonard Wood, a major military training facility.
The USDA reports that the average age of a U.S. farmer is now 58, with one fourth of our farmers over the age of 65. In 2006, John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska told The New York Times’ Upfront magazine that “Twenty-five years ago, there were 350,000 farmers and ranchers under the age of 35…now, there are only 70,000.”
It is estimated the United State’s population will increase over 40 million people by 2025. With the above attrition rate of farmers, it is also estimated that by 2025 the U.S. will need to fill at least 100,000 farmer positions to meet our Nation’s food requirements. Veterans like me can, and want to fill the gap.
In Missouri, 25% of all farms are less than 50 acres, according to the 2012 USDA Ag Census. Missouri has 500,000 Veterans, many of whom live in rural areas where the primary employment is related to agriculture. Coincidentally, VA housing benefits seem well suited for helping Veterans to access small farms for both housing and a source of income. Conversations with Veterans who want to farm indicate that they want to operate small farms that minimize financial risk but allow a lot of hands-on management of plants and livestock
The purposes of this grant is to conduct Research and Development to a) help remedy the problems of the declining farmer population, b) help increase income for small, local farmers, c) educate rural and beginning farmers on sustainable agriculture, and c) disseminate information to other organizations.
Goal One; Southern Missouri Farmer-Veteran Data Base Development:
At this time I am unable to find ANY similar projects specifically targeting Farmer Veterans. As the 2014 Farm Bill expresses certain advantages be given to Farmer-Veterans, many organizations are jumping to discover ways to get our Veterans into this much-needed workforce. Meeting the food needs of our Nation results in Food Security, and the Department of Defense, USDA, and many other organizations are striving to meet the Farm Bill’s new objectives. I foresee many grant requests springing up from this newest addition to the Farm Bill. In fact, a conference on this topic in November brought some 40 organizations from around the country to share ideas and approaches to address Veteran Farmer issues.
Goal Two; Food-Hub/Food Co-op (FH/FC) model development:
I will create a FH/FC model with the guidance of Mentor(s) (several from which to choose, including Tuskegee University Food Co-op, and recommendation(s) from contacts at USDA, Farm Bureau, and private FH/FC organizations)
Success will be measured by receiving approval/recommendation from 1) the Farmer Core Group, 2) one or two existing FH/FC groups, and 3) from one or two Mentors.
Initially, within a 100 mile radius of Fort Leonard Wood, MO, I wanted to locate and “register” between 50-100 Veteran Farmers and potential Veteran Farmers, as well as other small rural farmers interested in an Organic, Natural, and/or Sustainable cooperative-type system. I was to accomplish this through established networks of farming organizations (Sustainable Ozark Partnership, Farmer Veteran Coalition, Farm Bureau, etc), and by using advertising methods. As well, I was to do the following:
- Initial and follow-up Questionnaires will be utilized (both by email and reg. mail) to ascertain demographics, level of interest, food products/amount currently produced, and more.
- At least one visit to each interested farmer will be conducted.
- During correspondence and farm visits introduce area farmers to sustainable production practices that will enable access to high value markets. Farm tours of Falcon Ridge Farm and other farms will demonstrate use of conservation practices and practices that enhance soil quality and biological diversity. Agencies and organizations will assist with this message, such as USDA NRCS, Missouri Organic Association, and others.
Beginning in May (while hosting one of three workshops at my farm) I discovered an “easier” way of gathering info from a “targeted” group of folks. What I found to be more beneficial at locating small-holding farmers was to:
- Speak at seminars, conferences, and workshops and have folks list their name, email and nearest township on a clipboard/roster passed from table to table as I spoke. (*Example included). I gathered more names and emails than any other method, and folks seemed extremely likely to give that information rather than complete a survey.
- I would set up an information-gathering/disseminating “booth” at the same venues (*Example picture included)
- Follow-up with emails offering farm consultations and meetings to expound on Food Cooperative development
My new goal became to become involved in at least two “events” per month. As well, to increase farmer knowledge, and pique interest in food cooperative development, I became a “sponsor” at two major small farm workshops, in Springfield, and in West Plains, MO. As a sponsor I was able to; a) be given a presenter spot to discuss the SARE grant and its progress, b) to gather many more names and emails of interested farmers, c) to offer potential future cooperative coordinators a chance to attend these conferences (with each sponsorship, I was given five scholarships to give to folks from my data base). After a seminar/workshop, with the names/emails I’d gathered, I would follow up with questionnaires and offer to meet folks around areas/towns with several interested farmers.
Working within this “seminar” format of information-gathering, I was able to connect with many public agencies, and (more importantly) these agencies then became aware of my project. At the first workshop on my farm, presenters were included from these offices; USDA, Soil/Water Conservation District, Lincoln University Extension, MU Extension, and two small farmers; one concerning bee keeping for increased pollination, and another who spoke on rotational grazing.
At most every seminar/workshop there were several agencies both speaking and attending, similar to those above. As I would travel to neighboring counties, I was able to cross department-drawn lines and link-up with agencies and individuals from many districts. This became an invaluable benefit to both gathering and spreading information. Many times I was able to leave several brochures and/or informational flyers for these offices to post or make available. (* info sheet included)
Here is a list of some of the organizations with whom I had consulted or worked with (listed alphabetically):
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company
- Center for Rural Affairs
- Greene County USDA
- Lebanon USDA
- Lebanon Soil & Water Conservation
- Lebanon FFA
- Lincoln University Extension
- Missouri State University Extension
- Ozark 4-H
- Plato FFA
- University of Missouri Extension
- Sustainable Ozark Partnership
- Soldier for Life
“Goal 1: The goal of locating and recording between 50-100 participating organic/natural (non-certified) farms, and their foods produced, seems reasonable and will be my “measure” of success/completion of this goal. At least 60% of these farmers will be Veterans. Meeting each farmer and conducting a farm visit before registering will be a way to insure sustainable practices are followed.”
Part of the goal was surpassed. To date I have collected 241 names/emails of producers and beginning farmers interested in food cooperatives. But, the list is only 27% Veterans (65 total). This number is how many total Veterans this project hoped to reach, though.
However, I found that most people were reluctant to fill out a questionnaire. I even modified it to a half sheet, then, later to a 1/3 sheet of paper. Still, very few (total of 36) people completed an initial questionnaire, and only four (to date) have completed a follow-up questionnaire. I quickly discovered I was using a chunk of funding (envelopes, postage and return postage) on a method which wasn’t getting results.
The second part of Goal 1 was modified; “Meeting each farmer and conducting a farm visit before registering will be a way to insure sustainable practices are followed.” After meeting with about 20 farmers, I realized the travel I had budgeted was not enough to cover meeting with every producer. After receiving almost 35 names/info from one Veteran Workshop, I determined acquiring info via the seminar/workshop route would be a better method for info gathering. In order to be able to attend/present/gather at future seminars, I realized I would have to adjust travel. So, at these seminars, farmers were asked to list their names and contact information on a roster, as well as fill out a short questionnaire to glean information about farming practices. However, very few (36) actually completed the questionnaire.Cultivating Veterans sign up slip; sign-up for MOVA and CV
“Goal 2: Designing a FH/FC Model: I will create a FH/FC model with the guidance of Mentor(s) (several from which to choose, including Tuskegee University Food Co-op, and recommendation(s) from contacts at USDA, Farm Bureau, and private FH/FC organizations). Success will be measured by receiving approval/recommendation from 1) the Farmer Core Group, 2) one or two existing FH/FC groups, and 3) from one or two Mentors. *At this time, for this grant proposal, market development is not included in this Research & Development phase.”
Part of this goal turned out to be almost impossible to achieve: Early on, I developed a Farmer Core Group, which met monthly at a local VFW. In the beginning there were eight members. As fall and winter closed-in, all but two members quit attending. Because of their travel/time issues, I then began email-conferencing with folks to encourage continued involvement. Even that became frustrating to coordinate with everyone’s personal/work schedules, and in October I focused on events, researching and writing the cooperative info sheet, and mentoring.
But, the other two parts of Goal 2 have been met (approval/recommendations from existing co-opspokespersons, and utilizing mentors). My mentors are Ron Selfors; Sustainable Ozarks Partnership (Fort Leonard Wood, MO), and Wyatt Fraas, Center for Rural Development (Lyons, Nebraska). Mr. Fraas’ insights have been invaluable to the grant process, and his tireless efforts to support rural projects is greatly appreciated. Mr. Selfors has been my day-to-day supporter, and his easy-going personality made communication comfortable and straightforward.
I have reached out to four local cooperatives and conducted interviews concerning their design and development. 1) Ozark Farmers Cooperative; West Plains, MO. 2) Oregon County Food Producers and Artisan Co-op. 3) Ozark County Homegrown Food Project, Gainesville, MO and, 4) Ozark Neighborly Exchange (O.N.E.); Sorghum Producers, Theodosia, MO. With the input from these cooperatives, I have compiled an information paper on “Creating an Area Resource Cooperative (ARC).” (*attached)
1) Like mentioned in the “Results” section, the best method to acquire potential cooperative/hub participants is at seminars, workshops, and info booths at fairs which are centered around agriculture. This can be accomplished by contacting University Extension offices, USDA, NRCS and other Ag-businesses and services and asking to speak/present at their gatherings. Following through with pamphlets, info papers, and confirmation emails is wise.
2) Time is the biggest premium most producers cannot “afford” to use unwisely. When trying to get folks involved with either increasing production or coordinating efforts to create local food cooperatives, it seemed impossible for most to make time for further meetings and/or attending workshops. Additionally, when questioned, those already farming seemed very hesitant to take more responsibility or work onto their already full plates. One example is when I sponsored two seminars and then offered free admission scholarships for five individuals on a first-come basis to over 150 email recipients; only six responded to the first seminar announcement. Of those, only five came the first day and three the second. At the second seminar only eight responded. Five came the first day, and four the second.
Then, I sent several emails to the email recipients’ lists in order to help others organize and coordinate a food cooperative for their area. However, only one person responded with interest in wanting to create or support a cooperative or hub, and that contact was recent and is still ongoing. No other assistance from me was ever sought, and no meetings conducted.
Although I can fully understand their position, it seems as though there is a question which needs desperately to be addressed: Who will do the amount of work involved with producing food and coordinating greater distribution, when there are other jobs which require only 40 hours a week of time, and far less physical labor?
Perhaps, as the older generations step down we should encourage young people to “pool” their time and monetary resources together and begin cooperative farms. The days of generation-held single-family farms may have seen it’s “hay” day.
3) Organic production has set standards and guidelines. And, although Sustainable Agriculture is not well-defined, not a single farm I visited used a majority of either. For instance, an organic tomato grower still used chemical pesticides on his personal garden, and fed his chickens conventional feed. Another had “pastured hogs” but supplemented (especially in cold or drought) with conventional feed. Yet, both touted, “Organic” or “Natural” products. When I questioned them, the conclusion was “It’s too difficult to do it that way,” (meaning finding organic feed or using sustainable methods). Another farmer and food-hub developer of Wright County, replied, “If you’re going to be a food purist nothing will ever get done.” And, when speaking with an organic grower/distributor west of Kansas City about soil amending, his reply was, “Sometimes you have to use chemical fertilizers to bring the soil back from constant tilling and crop production.”
This was an event which occurred over and over. It would seem a future study should be done to question farmers about why they choose conventional, how they feel that impacts our soils, water and overall planet health, as well as the impacts on human health. Then, develop strategies to help change the unsustainable and unhealthy system(s) they’re using through education, networking, etc.
4) Survey/Questionnaire problems. A general “Missouran attitude” is one of distrust, especially toward people who seek private information from them. If I were more adept at designing and implementing computer forms, I would have designed (or researched a template for) a survey which could have been attached to an email. With just a few boxes to check and one or two comment areas, maybe producers would have been more apt to complete and return them. Also, I may have had a better response if folks had anonymity by assigning a “code” number on surveys.
- I have tried to speak at as many events as possible: seminars, fairs, and information booths. I averaged about two per month. I discuss my mission of assisting folks in sustainable and/or organic agriculture, and of helping to link folks together to form a “network of neighbors” and potential food cooperatives. As well, I discuss my “findings” from this project.
- When an event was to occur I sent a blast email to all on the contact list telling them to forward it to interested parties. Additionally, I forwarded the information to the district FFA coordinator and asked him to share the info with students and fellow instructors.
- At my farm, I have hosted one large event (45 attendees), and two smaller gatherings (10 and eight attendees, respectively). One was announced via radio advertising provided by the Sustainable Ozarks Partnership, and the two smaller ones were by blast email, flyers distributed at other events, and word of mouth. Photos from Wendy Lombardi for FNC15-1001
- I have sponsored, presented at, and/or set up a booth at gatherings with 50 to 100’s of participants. Such as; a booth at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Spring Fest, four Veterans to Farmers Workshops, three University Extension-arranged seminars, and five private agricultural endeavors, such as “Ozark Neighborly Exchange; Food for Thought” and “Ozark Area Community Congress; DIY Resilience” and “Ozark Farmers; Bringing back the American Small Farm.”
- I will continue to assist folks in learning sustainable agriculture, and in forming networks. I am currently seeking a teaching position at a University to further progress forming secure food systems.
- For outreach, at every event I sent out emails and informational flyers to local FFA, 4-H and Veteran’s groups. The Veteran’s group was the most responsive, with 50% of all participants being Veteran or active duty. 4-H had the least with one part time instructor participant, and FFA was slightly better than the 4-H group with a total of 2 instructors and one student participating in a sponsored event. MOVA flyer
- I will make an electronic version of “Forming an Area Resource Cooperative” available to anyone, and also forward a copy to all 241 email recipients.How to Create a Cooperative, FNC15-1001