Army Vet Finds Purpose in Farmer Veteran Coalition

Organization Uses Ag to Help Veterans

By Joanne Lui, Associate Editor

California Ag Today is proud to announce a partnership in support of Farmer Veteran Coalition by featuring stories about their members on a monthly basis. This is the first story in a series that will carry over into the next year.


Agriculture is important in countless ways. In the broadest sense, California’s agricultural industry feeds the world and provides many jobs. But on a smaller level, farming can change one life at a time, whether it’s educating a child or giving purpose to a veteran. That’s what Randy Ryan discovered since he retired from military service with the U.S. Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps. 

“I volunteered to help some kids grow some food. They said, ‘Man, you’re really good with these kids.’ That started me on the path to teaching kids in the Southern

tgn Randy Ryan, Farmer Veteran Coalition
Randy Ryan (center) said, “There’s nothing that gives you purpose like serving. And I can’t think of a better way for veterans to serve than to grow food.”

California area about growing food,” Ryan said.

Ryan, who grew up on a farm in Tennessee, began working with Teaching Gardens, a program funded by the American Heart Association that fights childhood obesity by teaching kids how to plant seeds, nurture growing plants, harvest produce and understand the value of good eating habits.

“I used to go into classrooms and say, ‘Let’s try some broccoli. Let’s try some kale.’ They were like, ‘Ew,’” Ryan recalled. “But if they grow it, they are going to desire it. And if they desire it, they are going to buy it locally.”

While working with Teaching Gardens, Ryan also connected with the Farmer Veteran Coalition. The non-profit organization’s mission is to “cultivate a new generation of farmers and food leaders and develop viable employment and meaningful careers through the collaboration of the farming and military communities.” The Coalition believes “agriculture offers veterans purpose, opportunity, and physical and psychological benefits.”

Now, Ryan has become the manager of a new California initiative with the Farmer Veteran Coalition. “We’re going to focus on the state of California and get more veterans involved” Ryan said. The Coalition aims to reach more veterans with information on how to get involved and to encourage more farmers to provide internships to veterans.

Ryan recognizes it can be hard to ask a farmer to train a veteran because they do not necessarily have the time or resources. That’s why Ryan is focused on getting fellowships and grants. Already, many partners have come aboard, including Newman’s Own and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

farmer_veteran_coalition_logo“There are also a lot of opportunities in the industry other than starting your own farm,” Ryan pointed out. He encourages veterans to consider opportunities in farm management, vineyard management and food safety, among other jobs. “The skills from being a veteran and those from being in the food and agriculture industry—they are so similar to me,” he said.

Ultimately, Farmer Veteran Coalition aims to give returning veterans a purpose after serving their country in the military. “Veterans come home with a feeling of needing to serve,” Ryan said. “Veterans want to serve. There is nothing that gives you purpose like serving. And I cannot think of a better way for veterans to serve than to grow food.”

Click on the link to learn more how you can support Farmer Veteran Coalition.

Ag Day 2015: A beautiful day to be a farmer

California’s agricultural community gathered yesterday on the west steps of the State Capitol to show, see and share the bounty of our state’s farmers and ranchers. It was a perfect day for such a celebration (although to be perfectly honest, the farmers would have preferred rain). In keeping with the United Nations’ declaration of 2015 as the International Year of Soils, the theme for Ag Day this year was “Breaking New Ground.”

Special thanks to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s partners in organizing Ag Day, the California Women for Agriculture and the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom.  Thanks also go to our emcee, Kitty O’Neal of KFBK Newsradio, as well as event sponsors the California Egg Farmers, the California Alpaca Breeders Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation, California Grown, the California State Board of Equalization, the California Strawberry Commission, the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Got Milk?, John Deere, the Kubota Tractor Company-California, and the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

 

SAGE Welcomes Poppy Davis as New Program Director, One of Our Own

SAGE’s New Program Director Poppy Davis to Expand Organization’s Capacity for Cultivating Urban-Edge Agricultural Places

Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE) welcomes Poppy Davis as Program Director to expand the organization’s capacity and develop and implement strategies for revitalizing urban-edge agricultural places that sustain and define cities. SAGE is a lean, entrepreneurial nonprofit organization headed by Sibella Kraus, recipient of the 2014 Growing Green Regional Food Leader Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Sibella Kraus, SAGE President
Sibella Kraus, SAGE President and recipient of 2014 Growing Green Regional Food Leader Award

Working through multi-partner collaborations, SAGE develops place-based projects, toolkits and conceptual frameworks to demonstrate strategies for urban-edge farmland preservation, regeneration, and re-connection with healthy cities.  SAGE also provides agriculture-related technical services such as foodshed and agricultural economic viability assessments, implementation plans and business plans. Partners include public agencies, land trusts, agricultural enterprises and associations, planning and economic consultancy firms, public-interest organizations working in the area of public health, healthy food access, education and conservation, and community groups in urban and rural areas.

Sibella founded SAGE in 2001 to use her background in agricultural marketing, education and journalism, to help diverse stakeholders embrace urban-edge agricultural places as keystones of urban and regional sustainability. Bringing Poppy on board strengthens the organization’s capacity to work with the agricultural community, particularly retiring landowners and beginning farmers and ranchers who are eager to benefit from new opportunities at the urban-edge.

Poppy Davis, New Program Director at SAGE
Poppy Davis, New Program Director at SAGE

Poppy began her career as a California Certified Public Accountant specializing in family-scale agricultural businesses and associations. She translated her intimate knowledge of agricultural issues and farm-family decision-making to the policy arena, working for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), first for the crop insurance program in the Western Region and most recently as the National Program Leader for Small Farms and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers in Washington, D.C.. While at the USDA she served as a member of the management team for Secretary Vilsack‘s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative,

Know Your Farmer. Know Your Food.
Know Your Farmer. Know Your Food.

and co-founded the USDA 4 Veterans, Reservists & Military Families, and Women and Working Lands workgroups. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Economics from the University of California, Davis; a Masters in Journalism from Georgetown University, and a Juris Doctor with a certificate in Agricultural Law from Drake University Law School. Poppy is also a past fellow of the California Agricultural Leadership Program (Class 35) and has served on a number of nonprofit boards including the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, Center for Land Based Learning, and Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

Farmer Veteran Coalition
Farmer Veteran Coalition

“We are delighted to welcome Poppy to SAGE,” says Kraus. “Poppy’s breadth of experience – providing services to farmers, working for ag-focused nonprofits and for the USDA – and the respect she commands in the California and national agricultural communities, make her the ideal person to help SAGE grow our mission to cultivate urban-edge places that model sustainable agriculture integrated with resilient communities.” For her part, Poppy says, “I have long respected Sibella’s vision and work, and I think we will make a great team. Sibella already has many forward-thinking projects in the works, and I’m looking forward to working with SAGE’s diverse partners, as well as bringing in collaborations of my own.”

California Agricultural Leadership Foundation
California Agricultural Leadership Foundation

SAGE’s areas of expertise, services and publications include:

  • Technical consulting and visioning on the agricultural components of land-use projects and policy documents
  • On-the-ground models and best practice toolkits that integrate farming with public engagement and natural resources stewardship
  • Foodshed  and local agriculture assessments  for land trusts, local and regional governments, associations and businesses
  • Conceptual frameworks that bridge sustainable agriculture and graphic models that depict the inter-relationship of urban and agricultural land uses
For more information, please contact Sibella Kraus or Poppy Davis at 510-526-1793 or via email at sibella@sagecenter.org or poppy@sagecenter.org, or see www.sagecenter.org.

Navy Vet Shows Children the Value of Work and Education Through Farming

Surrounded by crime, inequality and a lack of opportunity is a quarter-acre farm in East Oakland, California. U.S. Navy veteran and Oakland native Kelly Carlisle is trying to change all that by inspiring a young group of local children through farming.

Growing up in East Oakland, Carlisle said she remembers feeling hopeless at a young age.

“At 9 years old there’s nothing to do, there’s nowhere to go, no program that my family can afford, or for me to engage in,” Carlisle said. “It was hard, you couldn’t go outside, we had a one-block radius that we can play in and I remember feeling and asking, what I am going to be and where I’m going to go?”

The former Navy Operation Specialist said she wants to be able to give “her kids” a chance at working towards a better future. Back in early 2010, Carlisle remembers hearing news reports about Oakland’s high crime rate, childhood obesity, school dropout rates and teen prostitution.

“My initial reaction was, thank God I don’t live there. Then the more I thought about it and the fact that I have a young child, it occurred to me that there’s one population that has no choice to decide where they live or what their community looks and feels like and that’s young people,” she said.

As a result, Carlisle founded Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, a nonprofit urban farm that focuses on serving at-risk youth from kindergarten to 8th grade, and their families. She launched Acta Non Verba to teach children how to invest in themselves and ultimately invest in their communities.

Children plant, harvest and sell produce and 100 percent of those proceeds go to savings accounts to pay for their education.

At first it was a lot of raised eyebrows and challenging to get others on board with the idea, she said. “They weren’t use to talk about farming in Oakland. But eventually people were really happy with the idea to have an urban farm in their neighborhood,” she said.

One of the ongoing challenges is to get people engaged, she said. “This is our third year of camp, fourth of growing and it’s still a challenge,” she said.

Last week, President Obama honored the work Carlisle is doing in Oakland at an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan in the State Dining Room at the White House. “Thanks to Kelly these boys and girls are not only learning the value of hard work at an early age, they’re changing how they think about themselves and opening their minds to what’s possible in their lives,” the president said.

Carlisle doesn’t come from a family of farmers but from a military family. Her father and grandfather both served in the military. She joined the Navy in 2001 shortly before 9/11 and was stationed aboard the USS Essex. She left active duty in 2005 and her transition was difficult, she said. She landed a corporate job and got married. But in 2009, she had to join the U.S. Navy Reserve after she ended up unemployed during the economic downturn. She left the Reserve in 2013.

Her first farming or growing experience was with a lemon tree she planted at home and that’s when she felt in love with growing, she said. Carlisle took a master gardeners course and it was there that she ran into the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a veteran outreach organization offering veteran employment and farm education programs. Carlisle is a recipient of the organization’s fellowship fund was instrumental in giving resources to Carlisle to become not only a farmer but a person with a mission to change her community.

“Most of the children here think that food comes from the grocery store. We’re giving the kids the whole experience, from seed to table, from raw to sandwich,” she said.

East Oakland is considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture a food desert, where liquor stores and fast food restaurants outnumber supermarkets.

The City of Oakland Parks and Recreation leases the land to Acta Non Verba. The farm has cultivated beds of fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, green beans, cabbage, fava beans, sun flowers and tomatoes. It has also built a beehive.

“We like to work with kids because the excitement of seeing these seeds turn into actual fruit is magical for them and they don’t see it coming. The kids go wild,” she said.

For Carlisle, farming and providing a better future for these kids has become her life’s work. Carlisle said her dream for the farm is that children learn how to nurture the earth and themselves.

“As Oaklanders, I want them to be forward thinking about their future. I want them to remember this experience as something that at least gave them a window into something better and a different way to live,” she said.

From Service to Harvest – Military Veteran Deploys Aquaponics on the Farm

By: Blair Anthony Robertson; Sacramento Bee

Farming wasn’t Vonita Murray’s first choice, but after making a drastic career change, the 38-year-old Navy Veteran, former office manager and longtime fitness enthusiastic now believes digging in the dirt, growing food and being her own boss may be the dream job she has always wanted.

The transition to farming for Murray, 38, happened gradually over the past several years. She eventually took stock of her life, sized up her talents, sharpened the focus on her dreams and decided she was no longer cut out for a desk job.

For several years, Murray had been an office manager and a CAD, or computer-assisted design, technician for an architecture firm. Much of her work focused on remodeling floor plans for a major fast food chain’s Northern California stores. But when the economic downturn hit the architecture and design industry, Murray got laid off. She saw it as a chance to make a change in her life.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.

Using a $5,000 grant she received from the Davis-based Farmer Veteran Coalition, Murray bought some basic farm equipment and managed to launch her new career. She also enrolled in the first class of the California Farm Academy, a six-month farming course run by the Center for Land-based Learning in Winters.

Murray knows it will take hard work and several years before she can make a comfortable living as a farmer. But she has a long-term plan and says farming – including many 12-hour days – is exactly the lifestyle she was seeking.

“I’ve never been so tired, so broke and so happy,” she said with a laugh. “For the first time in my life, I have worth and a purpose. What I do has value in people’s lives.”

More and more veterans are turning to farming to connect in a similar way. “We’re all a family and we all try to help each other succeed,” Murray said.

When Michael O’Gorman founded the Farmer Veteran Coalition in 2009, he searched throughout the U.S. and found just nine veterans interested in going into farming. By the end of that year, the number was up to 30. These days, O’Gorman and his group have helped 3,000 veterans transition into farming.

“What’s really attracting veterans to agriculture is it offers a sense of purpose and a sense of mission,” said O’Gorman, who has farmed for 40 years. “It’s about feeding their country, offering food security and a better diet.”

O’Gorman is seeing more women get into farming and says Murray is a great role model.

“Vonita is dynamic, creative, energetic and smart. Whatever she does, she will do it well and take it places,” he said. “She’s a growing phenomenon. About 15 percent of those who serve in the military are women and that’s about the same percentage we hear from.

More and more women are going into agriculture. The military and farming are both male-dominated. The women who have taken on both of them just seem like a really exceptional group.”

Those who encounter Murray are often impressed by her energy and her holistic, lead-by-example approach to farming. Not only does she want to grow good food, she sees the work she does as a way to help people be healthy.

Indeed, Murray’s physical presence says plenty. Though she no longer trains as a bodybuilder, she remains noticeably lean and muscular. Her workouts these days focus on functional training and she is a big advocate of Crossfit, which combines classic weightlifting with mobility exercises.

“I’m doing all this because I want to get people healthy,” said Murray, noting that she hopes to someday build an obstacle course on the property so people can use it to work out.

She also has a penchant for unorthodox and innovative approaches to growing food. Standing on a portion of the land she leases in rural Elverta next to the renowned Sterling Caviar facility, Murray watches water stream past. It’s runoff from the tanks where sturgeon are raised for their prized caviar. It’s also the key to what she will grow on her new “farm” site.

Murray essentially harnesses the water, 3 million gallons a day and loaded with nutrients, to create an innovative style of growing food called aquaponics, which combines modern hydroponics with forward-thinking environmental awareness.

The water goes through a settling pond to separate solids from liquids, travels through a moat and into small ponds where Murray is growing produce she sells to restaurants and to a growing number of customers at the Saturday farmers market in Oak Park.

The outgoing and optimistic Murray has put some of her energy into tapping resources that can help get her going in farming. She obtained a $35,000 low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Murray, whose produce operation is going to specialize in watercress, says she would have been at a loss as to how to proceed as a farmer without the education she got at the California Farm Academy. The program costs about $2,600 and various grants subsidize the tuition, according to Dawnie Andrak, director of development for the Center of Land-Based Learning.

Those who enroll run the gamut of age and work background. About 20 students graduate each year. To make it a real-world experience, they write a business plan and present it to a panel composed of people from the banking, business and farm community.

“There are more women like Vonita getting into farming,” Andrak said. “You will not find someone more dedicated and more clear about what it is she wants to do. She is certainly not one to give up.”

Jennifer Taylor, the director of the Farm Academy, is herself an example of a woman who made the career leap into farming. She was a research biologist who had no idea until well after college that a life in agriculture might appeal to her. She landed a four-month internship on a farm, was given four calves and eventually rented a barn and started dairy farming.

“If you have no connection to agriculture, it’s very difficult to imagine yourself doing it, Taylor said. “It’s a way many people want to live, an opportunity to be your own boss, work outside with your hands and be your own boss.”

But can you make a living?

“That depends,” said Taylor, noting that one young farmer from the program now sells to about 50 Bay Area restaurants and nets about $75,000 a year.

Back in Elverta, Murray is busy tending her crops and her chickens. She’s not making a profit yet, but she knows it takes time. More than anything, she loves the work, the lifestyle and the mission. She sometimes feels the stress of having debt and not knowing whether her crops will thrive.

But her farm is called Thrive Acres for a reason.

“You have to keep dreaming,” she said with a smile. “This is just the beginning.”