Cory Bryk, a Marine veteran turned farmer, is dispensing wisdom, insight and some tough love to 30 erstwhile farmers standing in a light drizzle near Lenoir, North Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"We used to have turkeys, chickens and 50 pigs here," says Bryk, who started New Life Farm 11 years ago following his service, a college degree and work in the construction industry. "I have learned along the way what was profitable. We dropped things that weren't helping pay the bills."
Making at least a part-time living from agriculture is the reason these 30 listeners -- all military veterans themselves -- are taking this tour as part of the weeklong Armed to Farm seminar, at Appalachian State University. Numerous Armed to Farm seminars around the country are conducted annually and sponsored by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), which works with local organizations such as (in this case) Appalachian State's Frontline to Farm program.
LESSONS IN FARMING
Armed to Farm combines classroom lessons on everything from agronomy to business planning to applying for grants, with field trips to working farms. The Bryk family's New Life Farm, which specializes in produce, such as tomatoes, and now offers RV and tent camping, or glamping, on the farm, is an early stop in the week.
The Bryks have learned -- and continue to adapt -- their business to the market and what works for their operation. The straight talk continues as the group visits New Life Farm's greenhouses.
"As trendy and hip as heirloom tomatoes are, what our customers want [restaurants and health food stores] is a nice uniform, delicious, round, red tomato," Bryk says.
He has everyone's attention: "We get trapped in our heads and project onto the market what we think they want because we like a certain something, but at the end of the day, the customer is what makes the financials work."
There is a lot to be said for veterans learning about farming from other veterans.
"Veterans' shared backgrounds and common experiences allow them to quickly connect to each other," says Margo Hale, the Southeast Regional Director for NCAT. "The ability of a group of veterans to have a shared sense of mission has been a big part of why Armed to Farm has been so successful."
The first Armed to Farm conference took place in 2013. In 2022, there were six such conferences around the country with at least the same number this year. More than 900 veterans have now participated in Armed to Farm, and a year after they attended the conference, more than 80% were still farming.
NCAT is a nonprofit based in Montana and founded in the 1970s in response to the energy crisis. The goal was to develop low-cost, energy-saving strategies for underserved communities. The organization, with a half-dozen regional offices, expanded in 1987 to include sustainable agriculture.
Sessions at this Armed to Farm conference ran the gamut from basic accounting to maintaining healthy pasture soils to marketing and branding products.
If there's a downside to Armed to Farm, it is that there is more demand than space. The 30 veterans at the conference at Appalachian State were selected from 115 applicants. That demand has been similar for every Armed to Farm conference, Hale explains.
"This is the worst part of this job, having to narrow down the attendees," says Hale, who is based in Arkansas. "We know the interest and need is still there." Most of those attending found out about the conference from other veterans or farmers -- and from NCAT social media -- including a weekly e-newsletter. Those accepted for the conference will attend free of charge and can often get their travel expenses paid through various funds and grants.
"I didn't initially want my own business," says Melanie Carter, who has traveled to North Carolina for the conference from Chicago. After years of working with urban agriculture groups in the city and becoming certified in horticulture therapy, she is exploring, on a small scale, growing edible flowers and herbs along with vegetables.
"This conference is a good fit for me," Carter says, "with people who have a like mindset and a connection to the military. They understand what you've gone through." Carter served in the Air Force Reserve then active duty in the Army as a medic.
With demand high for the conferences, Armed to Farm favors applicants who already have land or access to land, are trying to determine the best enterprise for their operation or may have already begun selling products.
They are not quite to selling products yet, but Brendan and Brandi Bickel, of Prince George, Virginia, are exploring options. A Navy veteran, Brendan trains K9 dogs for police and military use from the 10-acre farm they bought two years ago.
"We're still trying to decide what our niche will be," Brandi says. The couple -- neither of whom grew up farming -- have taken permaculture classes and are considering growing cut flowers, but haven't ruled out anything. "I loved today's conference sessions on legal issues in farming," she says. "We've been working toward getting our soils in shape but hadn't done anything on the business or legal side."
SELL BEFORE YOU GROW
On the second day of the conference, the veterans visit Springhouse Farm, near Boone, and founder Amy Fiedler. She has become well-known as a single mom who raised her kids and made a full-time living on 7 acres growing cut flowers, up to 40 different vegetables and greens, and honey from beehives. More recently, she's begun selling dried flower wreaths and teaching group classes on how to make them.
In a new open-air pavilion near the barn, Fiedler reinforces the business side of this life. "The first advice I give to every intern we have is that before you put a single seed in the soil, you have to be able to sell the product," she says. "If you don't have a market for what you grow, you're going to fail. The gateway to farming for me was beekeeping."
Fiedler, along with her mother, Jean Fiedler, developed an 80-person CSA (community-supported agriculture) business in which they provide produce and cut flowers to regular customers. "Everything we grow is presold," she says. The Fiedlers allow interns to use their farm as an incubator to try different products or methods of growing.
Wilbert Bryant, who retired in 2013 as a commissioned officer in the Army after 24 years, owns a 300-acre farm near where he grew up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He bought the farm sight unseen and has leased it out for years, but now wants to try and pasture cattle there in addition to growing timber.
Bryant says he really likes the feel of a learning conference like this for veterans. NCAT offers the participants ongoing access to experts in areas such as horticulture, livestock management, sustainable practices and on-site technical assistance. Conference participants also continue to network on the private Armed to Farm Facebook page and can access online more than 400 publications.
"In the military, we create a bond with fellow soldiers," Bryant explains. "That is hard to do in the civilian sector, but here, we elevate each other up. We learn and grow together."
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