Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 016 - Serving Our Land: Veterans in Agriculture featuring David Paulk and Margo Hale

David Paulk: The one thing about veterans to me, is that they’re unique in that they know how to get stuff done. The broad theme is, for a lot of us, the land heals. It has this really magical quality to bring things together.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. I’m your host, Mal. Our guests on this episode discuss opportunities in agriculture for United States veterans. David Paulk started farming in 2011 after a long career in the military. He owns and operates Sassafras Creek Farm in Southern Maryland with his wife. He’ll be speaking with Margo Hale, a specialist for the National Center for Appropriate Technology, or NCAT. She works closely with ATTRA, a program of NCAT, to implement Armed to Farm, a weeklong workshop to prepare veterans to start farming enterprises.

Margo Hale: One of the reasons I think veterans make really, really good farmers is just that mission mindset and that, you know, they are going to accomplish whatever their task is. They're going to accomplish it. It doesn't matter. The challenge. And we know in farming there's lots and lots of challenges. Things go wrong every single day. And you know, for just maybe general population that might be really discouraging and it might be what makes someone throw up their hands and say, "I can't do this anymore." But you know, I see over and over with the veterans, they say, "Oh, that went wrong. Okay. What are we going to do to overcome that? You know, what's our new route? What's our new plan?"

Mallory Daily: David certainly approached his beginning farming days in that way, despite the uncertainties and the lack of resources available, he took it upon himself to learn as much as he could through books, mentors and experimentation.

David Paulk: My wife nor myself--we're suburbanites. We didn't come from a farm background, which is pretty common these days. We're the typical suburban kids. I had a long career in the military and as I retired from the military, I was looking for a second career, a second way to start to do something. And I specifically wanted to be outdoors. I wanted to work with my hands. I like tractors. I wanted to be my own boss. And it also was really important and meaningful for me to do something that was creative. I wanted to, I the idea of growing something and producing something. And as a kid I grew up, we had gardens as a kid. I had a garden, was in the Navy and I always got a lot of like, a lot of people enjoyed the great satisfaction and joy of producing food for yourself. 

And so as we sort of moved into this, my second career phase, I was thinking about doing a market farm and I would add that it was a big transition to go decide to start a farm. We researched the idea. My wife and I, she works for the Navy as an environmental scientist. But before I retired, I kind of was looking at: what do I want to do next with my life? I have this chance here to do something really different. And so we started researching it and started getting books and reading, taking visits to like-minded farms, not just locally in Maryland, but across the country in North Carolina, up in the New England area, out West. We have family out there. Sort of reading books, going to farm conferences. And we had a little garden in our place in Maryland before we bought a larger farm. And we even went and tried a local farmer's market for a couple of weeks with all our garden stuff. We took it all together and I was still in the Navy and said, "Let's go see what the market's like." They were gracious enough to let us in there for a couple. I think we were there for three weeks, selling stuff. And it's a local community that has a lot of navy people that have been put there in the last 10 years or so. And it was really well received. And so it kind of all came together at the end of 2010 and I said, "I think I want to try this for a little bit. So we're really fortunate and found a really beautiful farm property in our community, an 80-acre farm. We bought it and we just kind of jumped in. And here we are eight years later and never looked back.

Margo Hale: Wow. That's great. That's a wonderful story to hear how you were just drawn to agriculture and I know we'll probably talk about it a little bit later, but in my work at NCAT and ATTRA and our Armed to Farm program, which is specific for military veterans, I see that over and over of so many veterans who are drawn to agriculture drawn to being their own boss and drawn to growing things and having that connection with the land. So, I love hearing that. What are some of the things on your farm that you've worked on? Maybe things you've grown or new markets you've tried or really anything that you've done on your farm that you feel really proud of and are, you know, something exciting you want to share about what you've done?

David Paulk: Well, I would say--I kind of would back up a second and say, you know, what kind of drew me in there. I'm kind of a guy that grew up in the 70s and outside of Washington, D.C. And it was sort of at that time that sort of the health of the environment was really important to me. I'm a kid that grew up during the modern environmental movement and I was heavily influenced by that. Public school systems, really. And it sort of set the stage. I remember the first Earth Day I was in Boy Scouts and went out and picked up garbage out of the roadway and a lot of really, really smart people involved in Washington, D.C. working for the government, really in the beginning of becoming the EPA, and the air and water pollution really was forefront. And as a Boy Scout, I loved being out in the natural world. It sort of set the stage for seeing things and wanting to be in the natural world. And then we had a garden as a kid and then my wife is a Master Gardener. And so it was kind of, these things were setting the stage to what I wanted to do and sort of this creativity piece came together. So to answer your question, what am I proud of? I heard the word earlier today, "regenerative agriculture" and creating this, you know, rich biodiversity and I had this yearning to be able to get on some piece of land and do just that. And we bought a farm, it's been a farm for nearly 350 years, for a long time. And it had been in traditional corn and beans the last so many years and I had this really strong urge to go in and take that piece of property and start to sort of regenerate it, create more biodiversity, you know, below ground, above ground. I just couldn't wait to do that. And so one of my achievements is, I'm really pleased and really happy and proud to be able take this farm and sort of turn it around a little bit and begin to plant cover crops year round. Put pollinator habitats and seeing the diversity and seeing the richness of the soil start to come back and respond and at the same time seeing the vegetables that we grow respond to that, too. I'm really proud of that accomplishment. And I think the neighbors around, you know, at first they thought, I don't know what this hippie kid is up to, a retired navy guy. They kind of raised their eyebrow. But over the years we just really kept our head down and do what we do and keep getting better at it every year. And they began to take some appreciation and learn. I think slowly but surely there's a community respect for what we're doing. And so I'm very proud of all that.

Margo Hale: Yeah. Well, as you were talking, I started thinking about your community. And so I was just curious--say a little bit more about your community and your customers, you know, if you're direct marketing. So just how that relationship has been and developing that, you know, starting something and getting your community on board and finding your customers and making those relations.

David Paulk: That's an interesting question. We are in what we call Southern Maryland and Maryland is often thought of--the Eastern shore, which borders on the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Chesapeake Bay on the other, that's not us. We're on the other side. We're on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay and it's a long peninsula South of Washington, D.C. And extends through five counties. It's traditionally been very isolated, and primarily it's been tobacco, and watermen they call it--crabs, oysters. That's been farm. It's been the traditional for many, many, many years. Tobacco faded away and the history is such that the Navy built a base there right around World War II, an aviation facility. And from that and then fast-forward into the '90s when the Congress decided to move more military down in that rural area. So there's been sort of an economic shift and cultural shift a little bit to have people like my wife and myself and many others that have moved there as--we call ourselves transplants. And just what's been sort of a very traditional agriculture and sort of an area that's been sort of politely rural and kinda liked it that way. 

And so when we step in as newcomers and when we first started market farming, there were sort of a learning curve on how to do that and work within some really amazing people that had been doing this for generations, but also as a new people with some fresh ideas and also looking to the people like us that had been moved there through their jobs and establish this desire, hungry for sort of the local farmer market scene and going, "There's got to be something more than watermelons and cantaloupe and cucumbers and tomatoes." Looking for some diversity. So we quickly recognized that that was something that we could bring to that as we began to develop our skills to grow those things. And it quickly resonated at our little farmers market, which consistently grew year after year after year. And I'm very proud to say that we started with practically nothing. And now we have a really good, vibrant farmer's market full of diversity from vegetables, meats, value-added products. And a lot of it's just because people like us got in and started, rolled up our sleeves and started doing it. Collectively, though, the tide floats everybody. So that's what we've done. It's really unique situation. I know I hear other farmers across the country and in the region going into--you know, farmer's market sales are kind of flat, but we're a little bit different like that. We still have this sort of unfulfilled demand. And so I feel like really honored and really, it's really special to be able to kind of still tap into that.

Margo Hale: That's great. Something I ask farmers and producers that I interact with all over the country: what has been, or maybe currently is, one of your biggest challenges as a farmer and how have you worked to overcome that and, you know, you've been doing it now for eight years. That's great. You're kind of over that hump of the very beginning farmers, you've even made it past that tricky, you know, three-to-five-year mark that a lot of farmers don't make it past. So I'm just curious, you know, what were some of those challenges that you've worked to overcome and are doing well?

David Paulk: You know, well, as I said, I think even though I'm second career and I'm older, but I share common interests with lots of young people and I know through the last eight years there's a lot of this. It really makes me humbled and very pleased to see that there's sort of this "back to the land" movement. Maybe it's in my own mind, but I know a lot of young farmers across the country and we all share the same sort of, you know, interest and challenge. We're starting a business. Most of us don't come from an ag background and a lot of us have never run a small business before, so we're learning how to do that. And so it's not just any one thing, but it's a collection of different things and we're no different. You know, as a second career farmer, I certainly had my wife and I had more experiences in life, a little more understanding how to solve some problems and had some things passed. But nevertheless, we're still asking the basic question: how do you grow something, especially in our world, organically, and how do you market something, how do you do that and how do you network with people? And so the collection of all those questions gets together with: what are my resources? And it could be anything from peer-to-peer established local mentors. I looked across my region and my area in Maryland, in particular. I said, "Who's doing what I want to do? Who's the best organic farm vegetable farmer I know?" And I actively pursued those people doggedly and you know, asked them questions and have become friends with them. And so I did that. But that's how we solve that. Certainly I have a library of books and peer networks and it's just all collectively, all those things are challenges. But that's what we did. We just persevered through all that stuff. 

I also am a really big fan of sharing information. I have learned in the organic community people, they'll tell you anything if you just ask them. I think there's such an eager desire and a yearning to want to be able to share. It's a little bit lonely out there in the world of sustainable agriculture. Maybe that's not true everybody, but I think most people who are doing what I'm doing, we realize, you know, you have questions, things come up and you don't often get off the farm as often as you want to and the ability to connect with other people. And then it feels really good to be able to share that information and watch other new farmers. In my area, there aren't many of us. Slowly but surely, maybe every year and a half a new one pops up and like, you know, we get together, we talk and so those are ways we solve problems like that.

Margo Hale: Great. Well, what's your vision for the future of American agriculture? And maybe just it's personally, like what's the vision for your farm or your community and where do you see agriculture headed?

Speaker 2: I think we share a vision that's common with a lot of direct market farms. And that is, my grandfather had a farm. It was gone before I came along and he worked at the night job, then he slept and he went and had a little farm out in town. And that was common. Every community had small family farms. I shared that vision where there are lots of small local farms supplying to local communities with delicious, nutritious, healthy foods. And clearly, as a market farmer, selling both directly to consumers and then indirectly to other people who are selling directly to the local community. There's this huge desire and an interest in supporting local farms and sourcing local foods. And I don't know if that's a back to the movement of somewhere, but I have the vision of where--the farm local farms should be thriving in that we're not importing foods from out of areas. And then we're, you know, we're educating people on the benefits and how to eat local foods and support local communities. So that's my vision. 

It's tough when I think about, you know, how do we get there? I think people, they recognize that the local foods--everybody wants to root for the home team. That's how I like to see it. And so it's a matter of understanding that when you are supporting the local farm, you're supporting the home team and it wouldn't, say, have to be that much more expensive and you develop those relationships, which is really a key piece in a local community with foods. Anybody can go to the box store, the grocery store, and buy, you know, anything you want to buy pretty much year round, whether it's in season or out. But when you have that connection with a local farm, it's much more rich. And I think a lot of people, a lot of communities are eager to get that. The farmer's market, for me, has kind of become the new town square, right? You know, the watering fountain. That's where people come together and meet one another. And you know, I heard earlier, food is the conversation for the country around how we can all agree about things. So that's my vision. I think we're getting there slowly but surely.

Margo Hale: Yeah, no, that's great. And it's always so fun for me to talk with farmers who are doing this in their own community. Slowly but surely, we're for making a difference and having impact all across the country and in our food system.

David Paulk: Nice. So I want to ask you a couple of questions, Margo. Tell me more about your work. As a veteran, I'm really eager to hear. I think veterans have so much to offer and I know a few veterans and, you know, the one thing about veterans to me is that they're unique in that they know how to get stuff done. The broad theme is for a lot of us: the land heals. It has this really magical quality to be able to sort of bring things together. And I've met a number of veterans while I've been here and I'm really eager to hear about your work, if you could tell me about the Armed to Farm program that you're working on.

Margo Hale: Yeah, absolutely. So as I mentioned earlier NCAT and ATTRA, we provide training and technical assistance and we're here at the SARE/ATTRA conference celebrating ATTRA's 30th anniversary of doing just that; of helping farmers become more sustainable and providing them with the information and resources that they need. So that's just what we've done for forever. And in 2011, we started doing some work specifically with veterans. We partnered with the Farmer Veteran Coalition on one of the very first grants they ever received when they were first getting started and did a series of workshops and trainings in several places across the country. And also, at the time, we had a Military veteran on staff with us at ATTRA, and he was getting started in farming and, you know, he was really passionate about getting veterans involved in agriculture. 

Just as you said, he saw how it was so healing for him and, you know, what a great opportunity it was. And so that really spurred us to just develop some specific trainings for veterans. And in 2013, we offered our first Armed to Farm training. Armed to Farm is a week-long training for Military veterans interested in sustainable agriculture. And at each Armed to Farm training, we bring together 30 veterans and their spouses and we do a week long course. And so it's kind of a combination of classroom time and on-farm time. So we focus on the aspects that often get overlooked, like business planning and financial management and access to USDA resources and really giving the veterans that good basis. As you said earlier, a lot of you, you're not farm kids. You didn't grow up in, you know, in rural communities or on farms. Just knowing some of those basic resources, you know, knowing about USDA programs or who cooperative extension is. We do a lot of education like that. And then we go out and visit area farms and give the participants a chance to see examples of successful small-scale farms and hear directly from those successful farmers who are willing to share and tell about the challenges and explain the enterprises that are really profitable or maybe the ones that aren't so profitable. And so, you know, it's a really great training program. We cram a lot into a week. 

One of the things that we as the organizers of Armed to Farm, didn't recognize or realize would happen the very first time was just the instant bond and connection that this group of veterans formed that week. You know, they're from all over the place, all different branches of service, you know, different areas of service. But incidentally, because they have the common bond and the common background of that military service and just some of the, you know, the personality and skills that, you know, drew them to military service and then how that translates to farming. And that's been one of the most fun things about doing Armed to Farm over the last several years is just seeing the networks of veterans that we've been able to facilitate all across the country. And you know, staying in connection with these different farmer veterans and in different places. So since our first Armed to Farm in 2013, we've now held 12 trainings and by the end of this year we'll have held 16. And, we have about three or four planned each year for the next few years. And it's really, it's really grown and we continue to see just increasing interest from veterans.

David Paulk: How does that the word get out to the farmers? I was curious about that.

New Speaker: Good question! Through ATTRA we have, you know, our national database of clients that we've worked with and organizations that we're connected to all across the country. And so they do a lot of promotion for us. And anytime we have a training, you know, they'll help advertise. And we're connected with a lot of the farmer veteran organizations that have popped up all across the country. You know, our alumni of folks who've gone through, you know, who will then pass on the word. And you know, it's always interesting to me cause we ask our participants, how did you find out about us? You know, once again, a lot of them aren't from the traditional farming background. They haven't been going to ag conferences 'cause they're not farming it or don't even know some of those things exist.

David Paulk: They're in uniform working.

Margo Hale: Yeah, they don't know some of those things even exist. It's been really interesting to see how people find out about us and we know that we still have so much potential and places that we can connect with veterans. You know, we do work with some VAs and vocational rehab and things like that to get the word out. But every time we offer an Armed to Farm training--and we do limit the class size to 30--we always have at least twice as many people apply, usually two or three times as many apply as we have spots for. So we know there's just increasing interest because, you know, we can't even meet the demand that we have.

David Paulk: Certainly. That's amazing. I really liked that idea. A week certainly is a lot to take in. And as you know, you can't learn farming in a week. So as these veterans go through this program, what happens after that? Did they get on a piece of land? Are they connected in the local community through another supporting network? Because they certainly have a long journey, as you said earlier, to be able to get past that one year, two year, three year mark. Or are you just sort of thrown them out there and saying, "Good luck with that!"

Margo Hale: No, no! So the great thing is through ATTRA, we have this system in place to provide that follow-up technical assistance. I mean, that's our mission at ATTRA, to help these farmers, or potential farmers even, after they go through one of our trainings. And so, you know, we work really hard to connect them to local resources to make sure they know where to go to get to get that help. You know, we're connecting them not only with the folks that they went through training with, but now after we have all of these different classes of participants, we do other trainings and workshops and outreach with veterans and just farmers all across the country. And so we're able to say, "Oh, here's a really great organization in your state. You need to contact them.' And then just making connections with different veterans, you know, from different trainings and things like that. 

We definitely want to see them succeed. And so we continually follow up with them, ask them what resources they need, what challenges they're having, you know, how can we, as you know, as NCAT/ATTRA specialists, how can we assist them? What ways can we help make connections for them? We do a lot to encourage them to come to trainings and workshops and conferences to continue that education. And you know, one thing I've seen over and over and I'm sure you can relate to it, one of the reasons I think veterans make really, really good farmers is just that mission mindset and that, you know, they are going to accomplish whatever their task is, they're going to accomplish it. It doesn't matter the challenge. And we know in farming there's lots and lots of challenges. Things go wrong every single day and you know, for just maybe general population that might be really discouraging. And it might be what makes someone throw up their hands and say, "I can't do this anymore." But you know, I see over and over with the veterans, they say, "Oh, that went wrong. Okay, what are we going to do to overcome that? What's our new route, what's our new plan? We're going to get there." And you know, I have so, so many of our participants that I've worked with that say, "You know, farming is it. This is what I am going to do. This is what I have to do. I can't go back and work a desk job. I need to be on the land. I need to be my own boss. This is what I'm passionate about." And they're going to do whatever it takes to make it happen. And we are so thrilled to be able to walk alongside them and help provide whatever resources and assistance we can to help them do that.

Speaker 1: That’s it for this week. You were listening to Margo Hale of NCAT and David Paulk of Sassafras Creek Farm in Southern Maryland. We’ll post links to their projects in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host, Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening. We'll catch you next time.