ST. IGNATIUS — In 2003, David Sturman and Tracy Mumma bought a worn-out piece of farm ground under the Mission Mountains that featured patches of neck-high thistles and lands grazed so hard that the earth was laid bare in places.
But the seeds that could remake that farmland into something productive were still there. They were just waiting under the surface for the nurturing that would bring them back to life.
“When we bought this place, if you sneezed, five fence posts would fall over,” Sturman said. “There weren’t any bank loans involved with what we’ve been able to do here. It’s all sweat equity and lots of it.”
The group of veterans and their spouses who had gathered not far from the woodstove pumping out heat in the couple’s front yard listened intently as the husband and wife told their story of restoration of land that some had simply given up on.
It was a theme that likely struck home to many in that crowd.
They were taking part in the Butte-based National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Armed to Farm training that helps veterans learn the skills they need to become successful in developing sustainable farming and ranching operations.
The program traces its beginnings to a U.S. Army veteran in Arkansas who had faced down his own challenges of returning home from the battlefield in Iraq to a government that seemed indifferent to his injuries and to the PTSD that cut short his efforts to finish graduate school.
Terrell “Spence” Spencer had successfully completed his bachelor’s degree and was well into his graduate program when the war came raging back and his mind went numb. He lost his ability to track the simplest of numbers. When it came time to write a one-page summary of his graduate thesis, he spent 30 hours in front the computer without writing a single word.
“I simply broke down with snot, fury and tears,” Spencer said. “My brain was broke and no was there to help me fix it.”
About the same time, a fellow veteran whom Spencer knew well committed suicide. Spencer's friend was Special Forces and had served multiple tours in Afghanistan.
“He hung himself and a bunch of us cried a bucket of tears,” Spencer said. “ After a while, you get tired of that crap, of losing buddies that survived the war, but still died from it. Troops, like my friend, were at the heart of this program.”
After dropping out of graduate school, the NCAT office in Arkansas took a chance on Spencer, a helicopter door gunner in Iraq, and created a position for him. In turn, Spencer went to work to begin developing a program that could reach out and help veterans interested in farming or ranching learn the skills they’d need to make that happen.
But it didn’t stop there.
When a person is in the military, they always have someone to fall back on.
“You can be the most disliked person, but people will still have your back,” Spencer said. “You get used to that camaraderie. Then you get out and find yourself sitting by yourself in an apartment and no one seems to care anymore.”
Spencer’s vision was to create a kind of week-long boot camp for veterans where they could not only learn about agriculture, but also develop a network of other veterans with similar interests whom they could fall back on.
“As a veteran, I was looking to create something that would fill a need that I knew existed out there,” he said. “I wanted to be able to be around people who also had dirty hands in more ways than one.”
Spencer left NCAT just before the week-long trainings got underway to transition full time to his own pastured poultry operation, Across the Creek Farm, which raises 15,000 broilers on pasture in the hills of Northwest Arkansas, and also supplies hogs, meat ducks and eggs for both wholesale and direct sales. In 2017, Across the Creek partnered to open its own USDA- inspected poultry plant, one of a handful in the country open to independent small farmers like himself. He’s led a number of tours since then for the Arkansas Armed to Farm program and has helped a number of veterans get their own operations off the ground, supplying several with discounted feed and, now, processing for them.
From the seeds that Spencer helped plant, NCAT’s agricultural specialists have hosted at least 17 trainings that have reached more than 800 veterans since 2013.
NCAT’s Armed to Farm Southeast Office coordinator, Robyn Metzger, has been with the program since its beginnings and has seen it help veterans begin a new life that carries on the mission they accepted when they first raised their hand and swore they would serve their country.
“They have already served their country as a soldier,” Metzger said. “They see being part of sustainable agriculture as another way to continue to serve their country.”
This is the second year that Montana has offered the Armed to Farm program. This year, 45 veterans applied for the 31 available positions.
“It’s a natural fit for Montana,” said Tammy Howard, NCAT’s Armed to Farm project director in Montana. “The state is the second highest per capita in population of veterans. Of course, agriculture is Montana’s number one industry.”
While most of the veterans participating in the program live in Montana, there were participants from as far away as Whidbey Island in Washington state.
The training focused on small-scale farming and ranching operations that used some variety of direct marketing to sell their products. Mornings were set aside for classroom-style teaching on issues ranging from marketing to goal setting. In the afternoon, the training moved outdoors as veterans visited a number of different small operations in the Mission Valley.
Howard said anyone getting into small-scale agriculture needs to think their operation through and consider their markets.
“In places like Missoula, it’s getting harder and harder to find a niche that hasn’t already been filled,” Howard said.
By being able to get out on an actual working farm and talk with its owners, the program offers veterans a chance to learn how to navigate those marketplaces.
U.S. Army veteran Lance Barnes of Priest River, Idaho, was soaking in as much as he could as he followed Sturman around his diversified farming operation. It included a mobile chicken coop, which required some muscle from two people to move it onto new grass.
Barnes was most interested in the low-cost techniques the couple has employed to increase production on pasture ground from a half-ton an acre to 7.5 tons.
Right now, Barnes said his land is only producing about three-quarters of a ton per acre.
“I’m definitely going to be using what I’m learning here,” he said.
Barnes raises the same type of miniature, grass-fed cattle that Sturman prefers. Barnes was raised on a farm and wanted his own family to have a similar experience after he left the military.
“This week has been kind of like drinking from a fire hose,” Barnes said. “There’s been a lot of good information passed along. I’ve found that I’ve forgotten a lot about what it’s like to raise livestock. I certainly didn’t know all the resources there were out there for veterans.”
The connections veterans make with each other can change lives.
After he left the military, Spencer struggled to get the help he needed from the Department of Veterans Affairs for his fractured neck, back and shoulder injuries although diagnosed with PTSD by the Veteran’s Administration, he had been told he would have to pay for their counseling services if he them for help. His family had borne the expense of purchasing health insurance to address those issues for years.
Some veterans who had been helped through the Armed to Farm program learned about his issues and went to work to help him navigate the complicated bureaucracy of the VA.
“They helped me finally get treatment and a service-connected disability rating,” Spencer said. “That took a ton of pressure off my family. For me, it was like the finishing bow. For the first time, I felt like that injustice was past and I could close the door on it. All that anger of feeling like I had been abandoned by the government went away.
“I thought Armed to Farm would help change other’s lives, but it turns out, it changed my own,” he said. “This is a program that works.”