Randal Kelly and his dad started growing corn and squash on their family agriculture plot on the Navajo Nation back in 2019. Now in his fourth growing season, Kelly has added in more root vegetables, flowers, and herbs. At most, they’re growing on a one-acre section of their 10-acre plot. Kelly says this is just the start.  

“I would like to produce vegetables for the whole Navajo Nation, and the whole southwest,” he says. “We have the land and resources; they’re just not being worked.” 

Kelly was among a group of farmer veterans who gathered in New Mexico recently for a weeklong Armed to Farm training. He’s one of more than 350,000 veteran or active-duty service members involved in farming in the United States. Kelly is also now one of more than 900 farmer veterans who have completed the Armed to Farm training program first launched in 2013 through a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development. Armed to Farm is funded in part by ATTRA.  

Kelly was in the U.S. Army from 2001 to 2006, but he’s deeply rooted in agriculture. He lives on the same land he was raised on, and as a kid was in 4-H and FFA. He learned about the free Armed to Farm training through the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture, applied, and was selected.  

Randal Kelly New Mexico Armed to Farm“It was cool to see and hear stories about how farmers started similar to where I’m at right now and how they learned to use grants, have the drive, and make it a business,” he says. “I loved the training; it was amazing.”  

He adds the training was well planned, and the classroom sessions were paired with hands-on examples of the same topic. For Kelly, he says it was invaluable to see grant programs and sustainable agriculture methods at work. Plus, he says connecting with other like-minded farmers will continue to be a well of information.  

“My biggest thing right now is we’re a culture that grew vegetables and at some point, we lost that. I have black and white photos of my grandma standing next to 10-foot-high cornstalks – I want to be like that; that’s my goal. It’s part of our tradition that we’re losing.” 

Kelly says he took home ideas on how to mitigate erosion and conserve water, and on managed grazing techniques and cover cropping.  

“We are considered a food desert; we don’t have foods that are local,” Kelly says. “For me, it’s important that I provide better nutrition to my people. My mind is racing thinking about all the things I can do.” 

Dustin Cook left the U.S. Army in 2014 after a decade as an active-duty serviceman and later officer. He’s one of more than 350,000 veteran or active-duty service members involved in farming in the United States. He’s also among an elite group of about 900 farmer veterans who have completed the Armed to Farm training program first launched in 2013 through a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development. Armed to Farm is funded in part by ATTRA.  

Now, Cook runs the Veteran’s Urban Farm in Columbia, Missouri. It’s part of a nonprofit organization called the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture. In coordination with the Truman VA Hospital, the Veteran’s Urban Farm provides veterans with therapeutic, vocational, and recreational horticulture training and activities. Cook says veterans learn everything from starting seeds to managing a market stand. Everything the veterans grow at the 1.3-acre urban farm is harvested and donated to fellow vets once per week at the local VA.  

Cook describes struggling to transition from active-duty military life to finding his place in a civilian world, noting that sustainable agriculture was one piece that has given him a new mission and passion.  

“It’s given me a lot of drive to help other veterans dealing with those same transition struggles,” he says. “I have a real passion for helping other folks – they don’t have to muddle through by themselves – I can say I’ve been where you’re at.”  

Cook attended a week-long Armed to Farm training in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2021. Once he returned, he says he talks to any farmer-veteran looking for beginning farmer resources, encouraging them to turn to ATTRA and Armed to Farm.  

“The thing that really makes Armed to Farm better than the rest is that it’s the complete package. They do a really good job of presenting a lot of information and resources in a short amount of time while also creating interface time with local veteran farmers,” Cook explains. “The fact that all of that is provided free of charge is a huge benefit – there’s a barrier to entry in ag and finance is one of the biggest parts of that, so being able to go for free and learn as a veteran getting into agriculture – that’s just absolutely invaluable.” 

A story about the Armed to Urban Farm program’s recent training has been featured on more than 40 television news stations around the country. The free training included two virtual sessions and three days of in-person sessions in Memphis, TN.

Armed to Urban Farm, presented in partnership with the U.S. Botanic Garden, is an outgrowth of NCAT’s Armed to Farm program. Since 2013, more than 900 farmer veterans have received sustainable agriculture training through Armed to Farm.

Armed to Urban Farm is unique in its focus on operating a farming business in the city. Attendees at the Memphis training learned about business planning, marketing, land access, and legal issues farmers can face. In addition, they spent time on urban farms in Memphis, learning from experienced urban farmers and building relationships with fellow farmer veterans.

“They’re here to learn and connect with each other and see what they might be able to take back to their own operations,” said U.S. Botanic Garden education specialist Emily Hestness.

Veterans who attend Armed to Urban Farm come to learn about vegetable, fruit, and flower production, with goals of feeding their families and communities. Many, such as Army veteran Charley Jordan, also have discovered therapeutic benefits from engaging in agriculture.

“It was helpful for me and I figured this must be helpful for other veterans…So, I’m slowly moving on to working more with veterans and mental health and using plants as healing.”

Whatever the farmer veterans’ goals may be, Armed to Urban Farm offers support and educational resources even after the training event ends. Farming is a challenging profession, as NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Mike Lewis points out, but farmer veterans are used to challenges from their time in military service.

“and we think that if you’ve already started the hardest job in the world, why can’t we transition you into the second?”

NCAT and the U.S. Botanic Garden have hosted Armed to Urban Farm training events in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, OH, and Baltimore, MD. For more information, visit ARMEDTOFARM.ORG.

Watch the full piece, here.

NCAT’s Armed to Farm program recently celebrated its thirtieth week-long training with an event at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. We spent July 25-29 in the beautiful High Country of North Carolina and got to visit operations that reflect the distinctive agriculture of the region.

After two years of delays due to COVID-19, NCAT finally hosted an Armed to Farm training in the Southwest. At the end of March, we hosted 27 veterans and their spouses or family farm partners in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a week of training. As the Director of Armed to Farm, I have had the joy of participating in the majority of our 27 in-person Armed to Farm trainings. Each time, it is a delight to meet farmer veterans who are eager to expand their farm and ranch operations and connect them to the many resources and networks that are available to support them.

Tammi and Stephen attended the Armed to Farm held in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2018. They operate a diversified small farm in Pryor, Oklahoma. Tammi recently sent us an update on their farm: 

“Sometimes it seems that we haven’t made much progress, but as we reviewed how much we have grown and learned since ATF it has been an amazing journey. The local community now looks to us (mostly Stephen), because they recognize the quality of our drug- and chemical-free all on-pasture raised animals.” 

The Bells recently added to their farm by purchasing an additional 18.5 acres of land.  

“The property across the street is a 12-year unmanaged wood lot, on a slope,” Tammy writes. “Very undesirable to most folks. We plan to harvest wood for biochar and mulch the overgrowth, to create a silvopasture where the goats and sheep can graze in their favorite natural environment. We plan to have a have a lake view agritourist/wedding venue/you-pick, demonstration farm/ranch!!!” 

The Bells are keeping busy in other ways as well.  

“Stephen is in the Agroforestry MS program at Missouri University. I completed the OSU Master Gardener Course last year. We received a grant from the Oklahoma State Department of Forestry in 2019 for riparian buffers for our shoreline, windbreakers, and to restore native wildlife habitat.  

We enjoy making videos of life on the farm. Waterline Farm on Facebook and YouTube.” 

Have you attended an Armed to Farm? We’d love to know what you’ve been up to since then! Email your updates to robynm@ncat.org

Former Army Ranger Damon Helton and his wife Jana had no farming experience when they started their operation, The Farm at Barefoot Bend. Now, however, their farm is going strong and was recently featured on “Good Roots,” a video project of Arkansas PBS.

“Military veterans focused on sustainable and regenerative methods, like here at The Farm at Barefoot Bend, are a big bolster to the local food system, and it’s amazing to see programs that help support it.” – Good Roots

The Heltons produce eggs, pastured pork, grass-fed beef, and vegetables. Donkeys, horses, lambs, goats, and guineas round out the “little bit of everything” on the farm. Damon tells Good Roots that Armed to Farm “was absolutely instrumental in helping us get started.” 

Since launching in 2013, NCAT’s Armed to Farm program has supported more than 800 veterans from 45 states with hands-on and classroom learning opportunities. Damon and Jana were part of the first Armed to Farm training cohort in Fayetteville, Arkansas. 

Arkansas Senator John Boozman toured the Helton’s farm while Good Roots was there and shared his thoughts on programs like Armed to Farm: 

“We’ve got a lot of veterans that are coming back and deciding what they want to do in the next phase in their life, and farming is something that appeals to a lot of them. And the question is, How to you get into it? It’s kind of daunting. It’s not your area of expertise. So Armed to Farm, programs like that, really do an outstanding job of not only helping them get started, but these are programs that’ll kind of hold their hands from then on.” 

The National Center for Appropriate Technology, a national nonprofit organization based in Butte, Montana, manages the Armed to Farm program through a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development. For more information on sustainable agriculture training opportunities for military veterans, visit ARMEDTOFARM.ORG

Armed to Urban Farm alum De’Keither Stamps is featured in the latest “Meet the Modern Farmer” section of the online magazine Modern Farmer. A veteran of both the Marine Corps and Army, De’Keither returned to his native Mississippi after 12 years of military service.

“In 2010, Stamps returned to his family farm in the small town called Learned, where he had helped raise cows and grow vegetables while growing up. He tended to his old duties there, although he wanted to expand and find a way to help the community in nearby Jackson, where large swaths of the city’s residents live in food deserts without access to fresh produce.” – Modern Farmer

Armed to Urban Farm began in 2018 when the United States Botanic Garden approached NCAT about forming a partnership to present an urban-farming focused training based on Armed to Farm, NCAT’s sustainable agriculture training program for military veterans. The first Armed to Urban Farm took place in Washington, D.C., and De’Keither traveled there from Mississippi to attend.

“For both active duty military members and veterans, the Armed to Urban Farm conference offers an opportunity to build a new career in agriculture while still being able to serve the community. The program undoubtedly helped Stamps realize his goals. “I grew up a traditional farmer with cows, big open land, tractors and equipment everywhere. And now I’ve got an urban farm, too,” he says. At his urban farm in Jackson, he now grows squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, kale, Swiss chard and other vegetables year-round using hoop houses (also called high tunnels), which he learned about during the Washington D.C. conference he attended.” – Modern Farmer

Armed to Urban Farm participants learn about whole-farm planning, farm financial planning, urban crop production, urban soils, marketing, and more. The program is available to military veterans who are interested in starting an urban farm or who are beginning urban farmers (less than 10 years).

NCAT and the USBG hosted a second Armed to Urban Farm in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2019. This year’s training will be a hybrid event that includes virtual classroom sessions via Zoom and in-person urban farm tours in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. The application period for the Baltimore training closes on August 13. Click here for more information and to apply.

Mark Stewart, a Navy veteran and 2019 Armed to Farm alum, launched a micro-farm business last year on Whidbey Island, Washington. Now, Stewart and his wife Melissa are featured in the Whidbey News-Times.

They saw a need for local chicken on Whidbey Island and opened One Willow Farm last year. Now the busy couple sells eggs, chicken and turkeys. They give their birds nutritious, non-GMO feed without soy or corn.

They have a heritage breed of turkey called Bourbon Red and fast-growing Jumbo Cornish Cross meat chicken. There are several breeds of egg-laying chickens on the small farm. Melissa Stewart also has a few different types of chickens that she keeps as pets that lay eggs in all types of colors – including light green. – Whidbey News-Times

The Stewarts grew up on farms, and tell the Whidbey News-Times the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Armed to Farm program gave them the tools and guidance needed to be confident in launching their own business.

“We always knew we wanted to get back to farming,” Mark Stewart said.

The couple entered the “Armed to Farm” program operated by the National Center for Appropriate Technology in 2019. The program gives interested veterans an overview of how to get started in agriculture and takes them on site visits to veteran-owned farms.

Melissa Stewart described it as a “one-week crash course in all you need to know about farming.”

She said it is a great resource for any veterans interested in pursuing an agricultural career. – Whidbey News-Times

Armed to Farm is a sustainable agriculture training program for military veterans. The National Center for Appropriate Technology, a national nonprofit organization based in Butte, Montana, developed Armed to Farm through a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development.  

After a year of waiting and hoping and Zooming, we were thrilled to finally host the 25th week-long Armed to Farm in May 2021 at Mount Sequoyah Retreat Center in Fayetteville. We were so happy to be back with a group of military veterans eager and ready to learn about sustainable farming.