Veterans have an opportunity to use the land they fought to defend, getting assistance along the way.
Army Veteran Jon Jackson deployed twice to Iraq and four times to Afghanistan between 2003-2015. Now, he channels that energy into a new career as a farmer.
When he was in the service, Jackson had a backyard garden. He grew vegetables and had chickens, also admitting to having an illegal pig when he lived in Columbus, Georgia, near Fort Benning. After receiving a medical discharge following repeated deployments with the 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, he decided he wanted to try his hand at a larger farm.
One of his first stops was Farmer Veteran Coalition. FVC is the nation’s largest nonprofit organization assisting Veterans – and currently serving members of the Armed Forces – to embark on careers in agriculture.
“Getting my start in farming, the Farmer Veteran Coalition was the one organization that had the best integrity, the best resources, the best information out there for a farmer like myself to get started,” he said.
He used Farmer Veteran Coalition grants to get started and also connected with other Veteran farmers to gain experience, advice and find camaraderie.
Jackson’s original goal was to open up a barbecue restaurant.
“It was literally the proverbial question: What comes first, the barbecue joint or the pigs?” Jackson said.
Jackson searched for an in-residence training program but couldn’t find one. Using his Ranger mentality, he started his own, creating the AG Tech to Success program. The collaborative effort is between Central Georgia Technical College, Fort Valley State University and through the group Jackson created, STAG Vets, Inc.
The program aims to increase the number of qualified Veterans trained and educated in food and agriculture production through a comprehensive, hands-on model farm/ranch program within the central Georgia region.
The Sustainable Small Farm and Agriculture Technician program study is a 17-week program. Veterans receive a specialized technical certificate of credit. The program includes hands-on training in the production, management and marketing of small-scale food production.
Farming program origins
Jackson’s location is Comfort Farms in Milledgeville, Georgia. The farm name is in honor of one of Jackson’s teammates. Army Capt. Kyle A. Comfort, a fellow Ranger, was killed in action May 8, 2010, in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
Jackson said the constant deployments and horrors of war caught up with him, leading to a mental health crisis.
“I was in a really dark, dark place and I needed help,” he said.
His mental health crisis lit a fire under him. He started the peer-to-peer program for active duty and Veterans. They come out two to four days to work on the farm, helping with farm projects.
“It’s just to get Vets who are going through crisis outside of their own head space and do something productive,” he said. Working with people and on the farm helps them talk through issues, he noted.
The program’s goal is to be proactive, building camaraderie before a Veteran needs help.
“We want our shelter during sunny days, not when it’s actually raining,” he added.
Jackson said another Veteran team building event is the upcoming Q For the Few backyard barbecue cook-off during Labor Day weekend. Veteran teams will compete in the contest, cooking two slabs of ribs, eight chicken thighs and a side dish. The competition includes two teams from the Western Judicial Circuit Veterans Court in Athens, Georgia. They target Veterans in the local area who are or could be charged with a felony or misdemeanor criminal offense stemming from mental illness or substance abuse problems associated with service. The Superior Court works with VA. The group came to the farm for a short trip recently and instantly connected with the program.
“These guys have kind of crawled their way out of a dark space and now they’re coming in next week, practicing their barbecue and having fun,” he said.
Advice for Veterans
Jackson’s best advice for a Veteran thinking about farming is to simply volunteer at a farm.
“Learn all types of agriculture,” he said, including visiting everything from blueberry to cattle farms. He also advised to visit chefs to see how they use it on a plate, whether in a restaurant or catering. Jackson believes seeing different types of operations will help Veterans decide – or avoid – a certain type of farming.
“Everyone says, ‘I want to go cattle’ until they get kicked in the chest by a damn cow,” he joked.
Whatever direction a Veteran decides, Jackson wants Veterans to know that farming takes a long time to master.
“Farming is the only profession that you’re still a beginner with less than 10 years of experience, so it’s not a fast process,” he said. “You need to start slow.”
From fire trucks to farming
Evan Boone used to spend his days fixing fire trucks during his four years in the Air Force. Now, he spends his days tending to cows, pigs, sheep and chickens.
He started out with a small farm at his last assignment at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. He said his wife and him fell in love with the farming lifestyle, and soon decided to pursue their dream. Following his discharge, Boone moved to Aroda, Virginia, to start Three Springs Farm.
Growing up in a neighborhood, Boone had little experience outside visiting family farms in West Virginia. He also used Farmer Veteran Coalition for assistance, including webinars and training opportunities to learn. He also received a fellowship in 2019 and a grant to buy a three-door glass freezer for his farm store, which he said was a “game changer” because he can sell direct to consumers.
Boone especially enjoys the farming lifestyle and how every day is both busy and different. He likened the military and farmer lifestyles are similar because the commitment to helping fellow Americans.
“It’s really that sense of duty and kind of being there to feed people,” he said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s about each other.”
Read the complete article posted on the VA website here.