A veteran picks strawberries in a high tunnel.

Picking strawberries at Appel Farms has to be one of the tastiest hands-on activities we’ve had during Armed to Farm. Photo: Robyn Metzger, NCAT

In January 2020, NCAT’s Armed to Farm team was busy making plans to host eight workshops, including one in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in June 2020. However, by late April it had become clear that we would not be able to meet in person for some time. 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.

Twenty-one veterans and their spouses or family farm partners from Arkansas Texas, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee attended the training.

Each Armed to Farm training includes a mix of classroom sessions and farm visits, varying slightly depending on location and time of year. Read on for highlights from our latest training.

Farm Visits
Ames Orchard and Nursery – NCAT Horticulture Specialist Guy Ames has operated the orchard and nursery for more than 35 years and is a wealth of information. Guy and his son Dagen shared a wide range of fruit production information, including choosing the right fruit varieties for your region, pest and disease control, and cover cropping. They also demonstrated chip budding. We ended the day by planting hazelnuts that will grow into a hedgerow.

A veteran milks a goat.

Goat milking at Maple Gorge Farm. Photo: Margo Hale, NCAT

Maple Gorge Farm – NCAT Livestock Specialist Linda Coffey and her husband Ken hosted us at their farm, where we learned about pasture management, fencing, animal health, sheep, goats, and livestock guardian dogs. Ron Morrow, Ann Wells, and Lauren Manning with NRCS helped teach. Armed to Farm alumni Steven and Misty Mills brought dairy goats so participants could learn to milk. Greg brought the NRCS rainfall simulator, which really drives home the importance of healthy soil (see an example here).

Appel Farms – Armed to Farm alumnus Travis Appel has had great success with a u-pick operation and on-farm sales. He and his wife Ashley talked about their strawberryvegetablepumpkin, and pastured pork production. The group helped pick-and eat, for quality-control purposes— strawberries in the Appels’ two high tunnels.

Across the Creek Farm – We spent the afternoon with former NCAT staffer and Army veteran Terrell Spencer, who shared his experiences raising pastured poultry and led a tour of his farm.

Classroom Sessions
We learned about U.S. Department of Agriculture programs via Zoom presentations from Casie Person with Farm Service Agency (FSA); Alvin Peer with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS); and Tim Smith and Britni Rexweiler of Rural Development.

Two veterans crouch near a fence holding up their phones to take photos of a large spotted sow.

A sow at Appel Farms. Because customers come to the farm for u-pick strawberries and pumpkins, the animals are used to farm paparazzi. Photo: Robyn Metzger, NCAT

Daniel Keeton of Farm Credit of Western Arkansas shared information about their loan programs. Jerry Talbert with the Small Business Administration (SBA) joined via Zoom to talk about SBA programs.

Susan Koehler of Northwest Arkansas Land Trust shared important information about land access and farmland protection. Rusty Rumley of the National Agricultural Law Center talked about legal issues farmers may face.

NCAT staff gave presentations as well: Soil Specialist Nina Prater talked about the five principles of soil health and showed samples of different soils; Armed to Farm Program Director Margo Hale led discussions on setting farm goals and whole-farm planning; and I presented on sharing your farm story to build your farm’s brand.

A farmer stands in front of a chicken schooner, speaking to a group of veterans.

Terrell Spencer, left, uses mobile chicken coops to keep his chickens happy and pastures healthy. Photo: Robyn Metzger, NCAT

We had a fantastic marketing panel: Julia Den Herder of dhFarm; Daniel Beal of Blackberry Hill; and farmer and Extension Agent Jane Maginot.

Kyle Weaver of Arkansas Congressman Steve Womack’s office stopped by, as did Ty Davis and Anita Deason with Arkansas Senator John Boozman’s office.

Participants were incredibly engaged and patient with us as we got back in the swing of hosting this training, asking great questions and generously sharing their own knowledge and experiences.

Hosting an Armed to Farm training takes an immense amount of work, but it is one of the best things I get to do here at NCAT. I know everyone on the Armed to Farm team feels the same way.

We’re looking forward to hosting more in-person events later this year, so stay tuned for details! Follow our NCAT Armed to Farm Facebook page or email me at robynm@ncat.org and I’ll add you to our email list.