This month I attended a Empowering Women Veterans farming conference at the beautiful Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Hosted by the Farmer Veteran Coalition, this conference was open only to female military veterans who either are or intend to be farmers. Most of the women I met there already had farming operations of which they were the principal farmer.
I was one of the few women who did not have an established farming operation. Of course I was thrilled to meet women who have walked this path and to learn from them and the Stone Barns team. Having recently watched the Chef’s Table episode on Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (and read his book), I was ecstatic to meet some of the people growing the amazing ingredients he showcases in his dishes.
While I was there, I couldn’t help but wonder what drives veterans to become farmers. Here are a few of my thoughts.
Service & Leadership.
One of the speakers, Alexis Taylor (Deputy Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture) brought up a point I hadn’t considered. Roughly 1.4% of American women ever serve in the military. Only 2 percent of Americans and their families are farmers. The cross-section of those communities is an incredibly small number of people. These people have chosen to serve their country in one industry and then do it again in another.
These women are both servants and leaders. The vast majority of women I met have a community component to their farming operations. For example, Kelly Carlisle started Acta Non Verba to support children in a community with a high dropout rate and low employment. Kelly was even recognized by President Obama for her work helping children eat better, teaching them new skills, and providing them funding for future education.
Cheryl Besenjak, of Grow Well Farms, came to this conference for many reasons but one in particular stuck with me. She asked the various organizations how she could work with others to provide education, training, and resources to other veterans who wanted to become farmers. She had set up a successful farming operation and now wanted to reach out and help others…again.
These women see something that should be done and they do it. They stand against adversity and are making things happen.
Care; a Larger Purpose.
To us, food is about more than culinary techniques. It’s about feeding people. The ingredients available to our communities should be flavorful and nutritious. This is the focus of the crop production at Stone Barns. We had the opportunity to meet with Farm Director Jack Algiere, he was a wealth of knowledge and experience. What I took away from our discussions was more than just my notes on crop rotation, though. Jack’s relationship with nature was practically tangible. His appreciation for the soil and what it produced was something that can only be truly understood by seeing the pure joy flood across his face as he explained how a traditionally autumn-loving plant had survived a New York winter.
That sort of transcendental relationship is something I think almost all veteran farmers experience in one way or another. It is no wonder so many programs have been created to use farming as a way to help those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Military members understand working for more than themselves. And farming is no different. The ecological system has to be treated holistically, with respect, in order for it to thrive - in order for the U.S. to thrive. Raising and growing delicious food takes time, attention to detail, and above all, the determination to work for something larger than yourself.
Just the science of understanding the soil and the millions of microorganisms living there is enough to make a novice’s head spin. But the work of studying the interconnectivity of an ecosystem - to include humans - is tremendous and rewarding. Boyd’s Farm doesn’t have a single acre of farm land yet, but our family has already learned so much about our connection to the natural environment.
We have a dream of farming because we want to take care of ourselves and our community through a conscious understanding of what we consume and what we put on our bodies. Our desire to farm is inseparable from our desire to create non-toxic products. Our bodies are all we have; literally. In the interest of self-preservation we must care for them.
Ms. Taylor (USDA) made another point that stayed with me. Not too long ago, families had small farms they maintained and harvested in order to eat. Now, however, people trust someone they’ve never met to grow what will be consumed by the people they love. We outsourced a primary requirement for our survival.
Farmers today, especially small farmers, take up this responsibility. The duty to feed our country and other parts of the world is a burden that has been picked up by fewer than 2% of our population.
As veterans, the women of this conference have already taken on a responsibility for our society; to protect and defend our Constitution. Now they have taken up their shovels and fulfilled another need; providing sustenance for other people.
This task is not one to be taken lightly. Pause for a moment the next time you go to take a bite of your meal. Where did it come from? Whose hands harvested it? What would you do if they didn’t grow or raise it for you?
At Boyd’s we’re taking up this task because we are passionate about food, flavor, nutrition, and whole body wellbeing. We are eager to get started and grateful for the opportunity to learn from members of the Veteran Farmer’s Coalition as well as farmers and members of the agricultural community across the U.S. The percentage of people in this community is small but they are already proving to be some of the best people we’ve ever met.
I would like to send a special thanks to the following people that made this conference a success for this new veteran farmer:
Michael O’Gorman (Executive Director, VFC)
Julie Neithercutt (for gracefully putting together the entire conference)
Blue Hill at Stone Barns (for the incredible food)
Dr. Anu Rangarajan (Cornell Small Farm Program)
Doris Mold (President, American Agri-Women)
Dr. Tasha Hargrove (Asst. to the Dean, Tuskegee University; VFC Board Member)
Presenters from the many programs of the USDA
All of the women who attended this conference; thank you for your knowledge and your friendship.