Earlier this year, I was told about a program called Armed to Farm by one of the individuals I met through the intern program at Springfield Community Gardens. I hadn't heard about it before, but decided to look into it.
I learned that Armed to Farm was a program developed by NCAT to provide agriculture training for veterans to help them start and/or run their farms. The training takes place over the course of a week and includes classroom based instruction as well as interactive activities. Courses take place all over the country and it just so happened that one of them was scheduled for Columbia, MO this past April.
I figured it was a long shot, but thought it would be a good opportunity and decided to apply. A couple weeks before it was scheduled, I heard back and found out I was accepted as a participant!
Before going farther, I just want to say that I would 110% recommend this program to others if you're able to do it, and Margo, Dustin, and Karen (along with several others!) did a fantastic job putting everything together. If you're in Missouri and looking for assistance, don't hesitate to reach out to the MU extension.
I wasn't sure what to expect, but it ended up being a somewhat small (~20) group of individuals and instructors. It was a pretty even split of 50% classroom instruction and 50% hands on.
Each morning, we would start in the classroom, going over various topics such as whole-farm planning, business formation, USDA programs, marketing, etc. We'd have lunch, and the afternoon was filled with tours of local Farms. Everything was super informative, but having the farm tours and being able to hear about their experiences and processes was invaluable.
One thing I really enjoyed was that Armed to Farm partnered with the MU extension for some of the courses, including an apparently Missouri-specific program called the ABCs of USDA. It did a great job of introducing the various parts and programs of the USDA, what's available to veteran farmers, and how to utilize them.
We also had presentations about law, lending, agroforestry, and beekeeping. Most of the courses had some kind of material as well, whether it was a handout, booklet, flyer, etc. At the beginning, each participant received a one inch binder packed with worksheets, articles, and other information, and we added more throughout the week.
I was surprised when we actually received a couple books as well. These were well known books such as "Fearless Farm Finances" and "Sustainable Market Farming". I still haven't made it through all of them, but going through the farm finance book was very informative and helpful.
As mentioned, the farm tours were probably one of my favorite parts. The variety of farms was perfect - each one touched on a different industry or aspect of farming. For example, one farm had more of an agritourism aspect, another was focused on organic production, and a third was all about grass fed livestock.
Happy Hollow Farm
Our first tour was at Happy Hollow Farm, run by Liz Graznak. Liz has an awesome organic certified farm. She shared how she got started, her search for the perfect property, how NRCS grants helped pay for some of her hoop houses, and several other topics. One thing I found pretty awesome was her washing and packing setup. There are a variety of posters and signs with English and Spanish equivalents to help communication with her workers.
Battlefield Lavender was another farm we were able to tour. They had much more of an agritourism feel with a "you-pick" type operation in addition to tours and farm shop. Their shop had a ton of different items that were created with the lavender they grow - I didn't realize it could be used for so many things!
Green Pastures Farm
The great thing about the farm tours was the variety of areas that they included, and Green Pastures Farm covered the livestock portion. To be honest, I wasn't super excited about this one initially, because I never really had any experience in livestock and wasn't planning on incorporating it into my business; however, that completely changed once we got there.
Not only do they raise and sell cattle and sheep, but they hold grazing schools and host interns to help others learn about their methods. Greg also has quite the YouTube following!
Hearing his story of how everything changed once he started using regenerative methods was super inspiring, and the differences we saw in his land compared to a more traditional operation just on the other side of the road was insane.
Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture
The tour of Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture actually had a couple parts to it. First there was the Veteran's Urban Farm, and then there was the Agriculture park, which also happened to be right next to the farmer's market.
CCUA was probably the most interesting to me in the sense that it was very much an urban setting, which is what I'm focusing on with KTech Farms. Being able to see how the veteran's farm and agriculture parks were operated was super helpful. We were also able to see Lincoln University's mobile farm trailer, which had a ton of different tools and actually travels to farms throughout the area to help teach farmers what tools are available and how to use them.
Fun fact on the veteran's farm - they had started a small orchard but were having deer problems, so they built an 8' tall fence and posted a deer skull at the top of the gate as a warning. I thought that was awesome 😂
Heirloom Fungi is another tour that I wasn't super excited about initially. I never had much interest in mushrooms and didn't see myself going down that route. Needless to say, I was proved wrong again and the mushroom operation was actually pretty fascinating.
We were able to view the whole process of growing mushrooms from how the medium was sterilized all the way to fruiting and harvesting. It did become clear that electricity is a critical part of the operation, as everything is environmentally controlled and having a backup is essential for commercial operations.
Also, if you're ever in the area, be sure to try out Mandy's Bamboo Kitchen - Their food and venue is amazing!
Elder Blossom View
One of the last tours we had was Elder Blossom View. Unfortunately there wasn't much growing at the time due to the time of year, but it was still a valuable experience. One aspect that was touched on here that was missing from the other tours was how to actually make money from your products.
The Common Themes
Overall, Armed to Farm was an excellent experience and I definitely look forward to doing the level two version if there's ever one held in the area. With that being said, I wanted to close with a few common themes that seemed to appear throughout the course, both from the classroom and the farmers we met.
- Farming is hard - not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. It's important to have a support network and people you can call on.
- You're not going to get rich - There's not a lot of profit in farming, and most farms have off-farm income to help stay operational
- Don't Quit - there are highs, and lows, and you can go from one to the other multiple times in a single day. It's going to be challenging, but just don't give up.
- Embrace the suck - Sometimes what feels like a huge blunder or mistake could actually end up being your next (or most) profitable enterprise!