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From uniforms to overalls: Soldiers consider farming after Army life

Julia Botero
Soldiers listen to farmer Delta Keeney talk about growing organic vegetables.

Veterans who’ve retired or left the Army sometimes have a difficult time transitioning back to their civilian lives. Many have trouble finding satisfying work. Others suffer from depression. In recent years, thousands of veterans have found a purpose in farming. The Cornell Cooperative Extension is introducing soldiers at Fort Drum to careers in agriculture through tours of North Country farms.

The first stop on the tour today is Windswept Farms, just outside Watertown. 

A group follows Delta Keeney past rows of her organically-grown vegetables.

“This is a bronze fennel, a mustard green, dandelion greens, chard, Chinese spinach,” she says.

A soldier bends down and pulls a worm off a leaf. He shows Keeley and asks how she controls bugs without pesticides.

"We use wasp larvae," Keeney says. 

The soldiers are encouraged to ask questions like this one at each of the five farms across Jefferson County the soldiers will visit today. Catherine Moore, from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, is leading the tour.

“I just hope that people just get ideas and think of different opportunities,” she says.

Moore says the types of technical skills soldiers learn in the Army, like mechanics, engineering, even IT can translate to farming.

“So there are all these correlations between military, many who are leaving the Army and have all these skills, and agriculture where everyone is aging out. We need to bring more people with these skills into agriculture,” Moore says.

Neil Bailerd has worked as an recruiter on and off during his Army career. He says when he was in high school he was part of Future Farmers of America.

“I asked before I join the army does the Army have anything that has to do with plants and they said no. So maybe getting back to something that I really enjoy,” Bailerd says.

Other soldiers here today are already dabbling in farming. Some have bought land. Others like Howard Dawkins tend to a few goats and chickens. I ask Dawkins how Delta Keeley’s farm compares to the one he and his wife have at home.

“She’s about twenty years ahead of me, but this is where we’d like it to go though,” Dawkins says.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
Hops farmer John Hardy and Catherine Moore from the Cornell Cooperative Extension show off Hardy's hops

The group piles back into two vans and we drive to our next stop, John Hardy’s Hops Farm. Hardy’s a Fort Drum veteran and he looks like it with big broad shoulders.  Today his hop fields are muddy because of rain, so we gather close to the road.

“This is a great opportunity for veterans. I think it fits your skill sets and mentally. A farmers got to be able to get up on their own, get the work done used to work under harsh conditions," Hardy says.

There’s a Farmer Veteran Coalition. Hardy says they should join if they’re  serious about farming. Then, he gives the soldiers a reality check.

“Farming is not cheap. To start a 10-acre hops farm it costs about 250 thousand dollars.”

The soldiers look surprised, some shake their heads.  

The 2014 Farm Bill made it possible for  veterans to qualify for low-interest loans to buy equipment and animals. Hardy says that’s great but he’s been talking to politicians and veteran groups about finding a way veterans can use their G.I. Bill to pay for an internship on a farm.

“Right now that just doesn’t exist,” he says.

When the day’s over I ask the soldiers if they’ve been inspired to take on farming full time. Many say for now, they'll keep things small. Howard Dawkins agrees.

“What’s a big turnoff about these different farms is that it turns into an 16-18 hour day. I don’t’ want to do that. Not like I’m lazy but...,” Dawkin says.

He pauses for a second then says, "You know, it’s my retirement."