Hands at Work: Farmer veteran Kelly Carlisle teaches kids as part of Acta Non Verba in Oakland, Calif.
Susanna Frohman

A new breed of veteran farmers thrives after leaving the military.

Staff Sgt. Terrell Spencer spent much of his 2004 Iraq deployment in the machine gunner’s perch atop a Humvee. Spence, as he is known to friends and new acquaintances ­­­alike, admits that he was in a precarious position but had “one heck of a view.”

The broiling vistas were loaded with war’s constant dangers — entombed explosive devices, ambushes and suspicious characters. But one afternoon, Spence’s Humvee rolled past an Iraqi woman farming watermelons and grapes while her children played nearby in what looked like a bright green swimming raft discarded in a bleak, dusty desert.

“I really didn’t want to leave,” he says, still shocked at his admission. “It seemed right and like a good dynamic.”

These days, Spence no longer patrols the Middle East’s foreign roads but instead has two of his own farms near West Fork, Ark. — 54 acres where he tends to 15,000 chickens raised on pasture and nongenetically modified grains. He also raises hogs and goats, mends fences and drives around in a black pickup truck with 165,000 miles on it and “a lot of wear and tear from driving up steep parts in the holler.”

Farming is tough. It can be lucrative, but it’s demanding and exhausting or, as Spence says, “it’s not all rainbows and butterflies.” But in spite of that — or perhaps because of it — he is one of many military veterans who are trading the camouflage of the military for Carhartt, the working-line clothes popular on farms and ranches. These veterans are raising chickens, turkeys, goats and ducks; making honey wine and maple syrup; growing and selling organic berries, peppers and collard greens; and developing local community-supported agriculture distributorships.

The Department of Labor says 45 percent of military vets hail from rural America, so it would make sense that some would be in family agribusinesses. But for many, the reasons behind the veteran-turned-farmer trend — and the farm operations themselves — are as varied as the catalysts that drove them to join the military in the first place.

Dwayne Louis says purslane is the new kale. Its glossy, green leaves are crunchy like spinach, great in salads and considered a super food rich in omega-3s. “My kids even like it,” says Louis, who grows the succulent in one of his three greenhouses nestled among his 9 acres of blueberry and goji berry groves in San Diego. “This kind of hydroponic, sustainable agriculture is the future.”

Now you Know: Purslane was introduced to North America from India and Persia and has spread the world as an edible plant, as well as a weed.

Louis spent a decade in the Air Force before making a transition to the Navy to fly the P-3 Orion, a submarine hunter that has been around since the 1960s. He says aviation was his “first love,” but he decided to retire from the armed forces because as the father of five children, he “wanted to earn a living and ­balance family life, and you can’t have that life when you are forward deployed.”

Louis attended the requisite military-ordered transition classes and met Karen Archipley, who told him of a six-week seed-to-market program she and her husband, ­Colin, a Marine, run on their sustainable, hydroponic farm. “Being from Louisiana and a family that has been farming for over 100 years, I saw something where I could really apply my talents and skills,” Louis says, and his transition to farming began.

Kelly Carlisle has a similarly serendipitous story. She farms a quarter-acre of land tucked in the corner of a shabby baseball field flanked by graffiti-laden dumpsters and mixed-income apartments in Oakland, Calif., where she grows a variety of things, including fiery manzano peppers. “This sucker is hot,” she warns when showing off one of them.

A Navy vet, Carlisle grew up about 20 blocks away and returned in 2010 only to find the same problems that plagued her neighborhood two decades earlier — unemployment, crime and an ugly reputation as a food desert. She calls her farm Acta Non Verba (Latin for “Deeds Not Words”), which is a youth urban-farm project and has a nonprofit program where local kids can participate in growing a rainbow of produce — including eggplant, pomegranates, watermelons, strawberries, pepino dulce and sunflowers. More important, Carlisle says, “it helps them to invest in themselves. We made a beautiful sanctuary in the middle of the city.”

farmer veteran Kelly Carlisle, a U.S. Navy vet, on her Acta Non Verba nonprofit farm in Oakland, Calif.
Susanna Frohman
There’s little doubt Spence, Louis and Carlisle, along with others, are firmly entrenched in their agronomy-based lifestyles. But remnants of their former lives still crop up. Carlisle dons camouflage outerwear on rainy days, and she’s not ashamed to admit she sometimes has “sailor mouth.” The name of Louis’ farm, ­EcoVetFarm, is an obvious nod to his military days, and on the ­Facebook page for his Across the Creek Farm, Spence writes about chopping off a broken branch and called it “farm EOD.” EOD, a military term, stands for explosive ordinance disposal. The military’s impact on work ethic, discipline and inner strength, however, is less tangible but just as important to the veterans’ success.

“This is a very self-sufficient, solid population,” says Tia Christopher, director of marketing for the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC).

The get-it-done attitude is one thing. The business side of farming is another. That is where the FVC, a nonprofit organization in Davis, Calif., whose mission is to mobilize veterans to feed America, comes in. The group plans to distribute at least $100,000 in grants in 2014, but with strings attached. “All of our grants are paired with mentorships,” says Christopher of the ethos that bodes well for veterans often unwilling to take handouts and for groups like the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which support the FVC.

“As we look for organizations to invest in, sustainability is a critical factor for us,” says Anne Marie Dougherty, the executive director of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which funds innovative programs designed to assist veterans in their transition from the military. “The FVC offers sustainable ways to get veterans on a path to success.”

The normally cheerful Carlisle chokes up when she talks about how the FVC helped her.
“I walk up to the FVC table,” she recalls, flouncing her dreadlocks. “I’m kind of odd, short, I ride a motorcycle, and I say, ‘I’m a vet and have a farm,’ and the next thing you know, they sent me an application for a fellowship fund.”

“The farmers that we’ve helped have done so much already,” says Christopher proudly. “They prepare the earth, plant the seed, nurture it, harvest it, and I just wish people could see it.”

And while you may not be able to see the entire process, you can see — and eat — the final product. The “Homegrown by Heroes” program, created in January 2012 by Kentucky Department of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, is now a national brand giving veterans an opportunity to promote their products nationwide.

Army veteran Mike Lewis, the first of some 80 Kentucky-based farmers to sell under the logo, says America was built by farmer veterans and that, “We are at a point where we need to rebuild and give vets a new mission. What better mission than to give life and give health and food? We’re growing our communities and we’re growing hope.”  

Molly Blake is a San Francisco-based freelancer writer. She has written for The  New York Times' at war blog, The Costco Connection and USSA Magazine. This is her first article for American Way.