Veterans Are Finding New Sense of Mission in Farming

1/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

When Matt Soldano left the U.S. Marine Corps in 2006, he had no idea he would become a farmer.

Seven years later, he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

“It’s such a calming, relaxing feeling to go out there,” Soldano said.

At one time, he worked on perimeter security at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These days, he raises eggs and chickens on a small farm in New Jersey.

For many military veterans, a second life as a farmer presents lots of challenges, from having enough land to farm to scraping up enough money to get a working tractor or other equipment. But it also presents a chance to do something they’ve grown accustomed to doing already; serving a greater good than their own.

“It’s definitely that sense of purpose that drove me into the Marine Corps. In the same way, I’m doing that again,” Soldano said.

Sasha Klein of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in California whose mission is to get veterans into farming, said many veterans appreciate the feeling of autonomy from working on a farm.

“There is a also real therapeutic need to working with your hands. In a lot of ways, agriculture is a way of continued service for these men and women,” Klein said.

Soldano got into farming after moving in with his in-laws in Mahwah, N.J., in 2006. Soldano’s father-in-law had a surplus of chicks, so he gave six little chicks to Soldano to raise on his own.

“I thought kind of living off the land was a neat idea, but I never thought it was a real possibility,” he said.

The chicks got older and started laying eggs, which Soldano shared with people in his neighborhood.

The eggs became popular and he decided to purchase more chickens to expand what was quickly becoming a business.

“The more I got into it and the more I delved into the business aspect of it, it was very rewarding for me to produce high-quality food,” he said.

Today, he has 250 laying hens and some broilers on 10 acres of preserved land he leases in Bergen County. The layers are Rhode Island Reds while the broilers are Cornish Crosses.

Soldano recently bought a 21-acre farm in Warren County and hopes to expand the business to 600 laying hens and 1,200 broilers by 2014. He sells the eggs at local farmers markets and is involved with a local CSA (community supported agriculture) business.

The fact that he started with no money and no land proved to be the biggest hurdle to getting the business started, since land prices in New Jersey are among the highest in the country.

So he’s had to be quite frugal and has accumulated a lot of debt to get the business going. The chickens are raised on pasture but housed in a trailer that’s moved from pasture to pasture when needed.

Soldano built his own feeders for the birds, using five-gallon buckets and a couple of feed pans.

He’s using a 1953 Allis Chalmers tractor, which needs a lot of maintenance but gets the job done, he said.

Even with all of that, Soldano still has to buy feed for the chickens.

“It’s nuts how expensive farming is,” he said.

For Justin Garrity, farming has been an exercise in patience and learning.

After serving as a combat engineer for the U.S. Army for five years, he left active duty in 2009 and joined the Pennsylvania National Guard.

He knew getting a job after serving in Iraq and Korea wasn’t going to be easy, especially with the bad economy. So he turned his attention to farming and in particular, collecting food scraps from businesses to turn into compost.

“I was looking at different sustainable businesses and saw composting as an option,” Garrity said.

Like Soldano, Garrity found it difficult to get started. All he had was a shovel, a truck and the willingness to learn.

“I kind of learned a lot by reading and doing,” he said.

Garrity leased a 30-acre tract of land in Aberdeen, Md., and bought an old Farmall 444 tractor for $800. He ended up putting in more than $3,000 in repairs over the life of the tractor.

“In hindsight, I probably overpaid,” he said with a laugh.

More challenging than getting the business started, though, was sticking with it.

The first six months were tough. Garrity made only $350 and had to take a night job to pay the bills.

But he didn’t give up and things eventually turned around. He made connections with various restaurateurs who were looking for a way to get rid of their waste and found a niche market with homeowners and gardeners wanting to use compost.

“I think a lot of it comes back to the determination I got in the military,” he said.

Garrity’s business produces 10 to 15 yards of compost a day, but he hopes to eventually expand the business and produce 60 to 90 yards a day by 2013.

He’s even looking to hire fellow veterans in the beginning of the year.

“It’s a good honest living,” he said. “My peers, other farmers, they are good honest people where a handshake actually means something. Hard work and integrity is valued. It’s been great.”

Many veterans find the transition to life after military to be a hard one.

Some turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with their lives.

In 1993, Ohio native Leslie Lightfoot, a veteran Army medic who served from 1967 to 1970, started Veteran Homestead Inc. in Leominster, Mass. Her goal was to provide services for veterans with medical and psychological needs.

The nonprofit organization operates several “homesteads” in Massachusetts and Puerto Rico.

In 2004, Lightfoot, whose father runs a small 40-acre farm in Ohio, came up with the idea of opening a new facility with an adjoining farm in Fitzwilliam, N.H., called The Victory Farm.

The idea was to better serve veterans with mental and substance abuse problems by not only providing them a way to grow a plant or raise an animal, but also by giving them a sense of pride in doing so.

“It’s just such good therapy. If you’re talking to someone with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), if you’re digging in the dirt with them, or taking care of an animal, it could get them to open up, and before you know it, you have their whole family history without trying,” Lightfoot said.

“We tell them that if you can’t keep a plant alive for a year, don’t even think about a relationship,” she said. “Animals are so forgiving, you can spill your guts to a cow and you will get the same positive regard otherwise.”

Veterans get into the program by first going through a detoxification program. They then come to the farm, where their days are split between attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and doing farm chores.

The 80-acre farm includes an organic vegetable operation, pasture-raised layer hens and pork.

Almost everything produced on the farm is used to feed the 20 or so veterans living at the facility. Any remaining food is sold to make some modest income.

Lightfoot said the program has been highly successful, with a 90 percent success rate.

“I think it’s been a huge success. So many of the people that never thought they would be clean and sober are now living on their own,” she said.

But while many tell her they’d like to farm on their own, the reality of getting into farming hits home after they leave the facility, which they can stay at for up to two years.

“A lot say they would want to do this, but they find the costs and return on investment not worth it,” she said.

Garrity said there were a lot of good training opportunities he never heard about until after starting his business. Sticking to a good business plan, he said, was the key to his success.

“There certainly is a need for fresh blood in farming. I think there is a lot of opportunities to educate about farming,” Garrity said. “A bad day on the farm is certainly better than a good day in Afghanistan.”

Looking back, Soldano said he wishes he would’ve relied more on organizations like the Natural Resource Conservation Service and ATTRA, The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, for technical and financial assistance before diving headfirst into the business.

But it sounds as if that’s the only regret he has in becoming a farmer.

“It’s high stress because it is a business and I am trying to generate a profit. At the same time, it is low stress. Working with these animals, it’s relaxing,” Soldano said.

“It taught me to be a better person,” he said. “It’s definitely a healing experience going outside every morning. It feels like I’m almost back in the service, because people are relying on me every day.”

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