Walter Palmer had been farming for nine months when he noticed his best lamb, a Cheviot-Dorset cross his wife named Italy, was acting strangely.
Italy had developed a crooked neck and had begun falling. “Her back end would just give out, and I couldn’t figure out why,” he said. “That was pretty heartbreaking for me, because we thought we were going to lose her.”
Desperately worried, he called Jonathan Barter, Palmer’s farming mentor provided by Cornell’s Farm Ops program. Part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the program sets up New York state’s veterans for success in agriculture.
Barter, a grazing specialist with the Soil and Water Conservation District of Steuben County, came by the next day. He quickly identified the problem as swayback, caused by a nutrient deficiency.
“Jonathan came and gave her a shot of vitamin E and selenium,” Palmer said. “She’s been great ever since.”
Italy and three other lambs were the first animals Palmer brought to his farm, 145 acres of pasture, wetlands and hardwood forest in Savona, New York. Last December Palmer and his wife, Sara, and their two children moved into the 1918 farmhouse that came with the land.
“Ever since I was 18 my dream was to have a farm, be self-sufficient, be independent,” he said.
Palmer, 35, had held onto that dream throughout his military service. He was a corporal in the Marine Corps 2001-05 based in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and a senior airman in the Air Force 2005-09 based in San Antonio, Texas. When he left the military, he returned home to New York to pursue his interest in agriculture.
Knowing Cornell had top-notch ag resources, last April he visited the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) office in Bath, New York. Staff there referred him to the Farm Ops program, which set him up with Barter as a mentor.
Since then, Barter has taught Palmer basic veterinary skills and how to use haying equipment, improve his fencing and water systems, and institute intensive rotational grazing. “Any questions we have, he answers,” Palmer said. “A lifelong friendship is the key thing that we walked away with from the mentorship.”
Through Farm Ops workshops and experts, Palmer also learned how to put up electric fencing and write a business plan. “Cornell was my first supporter,” he said. “Cornell has been right there from the beginning.”
Palmer, who works as a quality assurance engineer by day, now has 10 Lowline Angus beef cattle and sheep and sells hay. He plans to raise goats and pigs, produce honey and grow garlic – and eventually give the farm to his children. “It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s all about giving them a good quality of life and then passing it on.”
A menu of options
Palmer is one of thousands of New York state veteran-farmers supported by Farm Ops. Created in 2015 as an initiative of CCE's Cornell Small Farms Program, Farm Ops acts as an information clearinghouse, offering beginner farmers up-to-date, accurate information, often gleaned from Cornell research.
“If a veteran is exploring farming, we give them a menu of options to get the skills they need for success,” said Anu Rangarajan, director of the Cornell Small Farms Program. “Depending on the direction they want to head in, we can put together a package of resources for them.”
With CCE, Farm Ops offers low- and no-cost workshops online, in the classroom and in the field. Veteran farmers can learn anything from raising poultry to growing shiitake mushrooms, creating fruit orchards and producing value-added products such as maple syrup. Scholarships offset travel and accommodation costs. Farm Ops also connects veterans with experts who can troubleshoot specific problems. And it collaborates with national and regional programs such as Armed to Farm, where veterans across the state get a week of intensive ag training and tour other veterans’ farms.
Farm Ops has grown to more than 1,000 members, almost tripling in size in the past three years.
The program serves one of the most vibrant, diverse farming states in the country, noted Michael O’Gorman, executive director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national organization that introduces veterans to agriculture.
“Farmer-veterans are raising oysters on Long Island, beef and dairy cattle near the Canadian border, vegetables in the Hudson Valley and apples out west,” O’Gorman said. “Yet Farm Ops has figured out a way to serve them all. I cannot think of another state where one organization has served as many veterans this well.”
Farm Ops was initially supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is now funded by New York state through a line item in its annual budget. The program has an 80 percent success rate, based on veterans reaching their self-reported goals.
Many Farm Ops members are homesteaders who take a workshop or two to grow their own food for self-sufficiency, happiness and health.
"I cannot think of another state where one organization has served as many veterans this well."
Michael O'Gorman, executive director, Farmer Veteran Coalition
“They’re not in it for economic reasons necessarily,” said Farm Ops Program Manager Dean Koyanagi ’90. “There are some who say, ‘I don’t want a desk job, and this allows me to work in the dirt outside.’” Koyanagi, who did anti-terrorism work in the Marines 1987-91 based out of Norfolk, Virginia, runs a small, diversified farm a few miles from Cornell’s Ithaca campus.
An ag career can mean more than shoveling manure pointed out Alyssa Couse, an agriculture outreach educator with CCE of Jefferson County. “People can work in sales, information technology, logistics, mechanics,” she said. With Farm Ops support, Couse spends time at Fort Drum near Watertown, New York, the home of the Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division, informing soldiers transitioning into civilian life about opportunities in agriculture as their next career path or a therapeutic hobby. “They can use all of these skills that made them successful in the military and apply them to an industry that is becoming more technical,” she said.
Perhaps most significantly, Farm Ops helps veteran farmers avoid making mistakes. “Farming is such a high-risk venture,” Koyanagi said. “Even when it’s not their main business, we tell them, ‘Go in carefully, go in smart.’”
Tricia Park wishes Farm Ops had been around when she and her husband started their 150-acre Creekside Meadows Farm 15 years ago in New Woodstock, New York. A retired staff sergeant, Park served in the Air Force as an aerospace ground equipment mechanic in the late 1980s with two tours in Turkey.
“I do see that Farm Ops is a needed program,” said Park, who has hosted several Farm Ops tours and trainings. “I’ve seen dozens and dozens of farms go under because of lack of training and lack of commitment. Honestly, they didn’t get the reality of living this kind of lifestyle. Farm Ops is giving vets some reality checks and factual information.”
‘I’ve figured out where I need to be’
On a sunny October afternoon, Logan Yarbrough adjusted the portable electric fencing enclosing a dozen meat goats munching on goldenrod on Yarbrough’s 40 acres in Brooktondale, New York. The spring-fed hillside looks out over his family’s dairy farm across the road.
He got the parcel from his grandfather, a veteran who bought the land after serving in the Korean War. “I think he enjoys it being in use and seeing family members also using it for farming,” Yarbrough said.
He moves the fencing every few days to give the goats a new grazing area, he said. The week before, the goats escaped and were on the loose for four days. Once he found them, it took two more days to corral them, with the help of his brothers-in-law, friends, state troopers and a neighbor with a fenced yard.
Since then he had sold 13 goats – nearly half his herd – at a 30 percent profit. He knows his profit margin because Koyanagi lined him up with a free accounting consultation – a $2,000 value – with a Tompkins County CCE agriculture marketing specialist. The consultation was paid for by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for beginning farmers. “Without that, I’d still be throwing money away,” Yarbrough said. “That was one of the most helpful things I’ve gotten from Farm Ops.”
Leveraging Farm Ops resources, Yarbrough has developed a five-year goal: to own a diversified farm, rotating cows, goats and barley on a few hundred acres.
The plan began to emerge after serving six years as a staff sergeant and squad leader in the Army’s 12th Infantry Battalion, including deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he left the Army in 2015, he realized he missed being outside with animals, as he had on his family’s dairy farm. “From there, I thought, how am I going to do this?” he said. “I came back to farming, every time.”
His land isn’t suitable for raising cattle or pigs, but it can handle goats. He bought a few, and enrolled in Tompkins Cortland Community College’s agriculture program. There he heard a presentation by Koyanagi, who encouraged him to attend an Armed to Farm ag training in Hamilton, New York – all expenses paid by Farm Ops.
Koyanagi often identifies host farmers and organizes speakers in conjunction with the organization that runs Armed to Farm, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT).
“Farm Ops has been instrumental in bringing together military veterans in agriculture and in creating an environment that allows veterans to utilize their skills in helping one another manage toward their family and farm goals,” said Andy Pressman, NCAT’s northeast regional director.
For Yarbrough, the experience was life-changing.
“I loved it,” he said. “Going to Armed to Farm gave me more of a direction.”
Networking with experts and participants there, he learned there’s an untapped market for goat in the region. He met a woman who now supplies him with animals, and he got tips on how to manage the overabundance of goldenrod on his land. “So I was like, that’s a good starting point,” Yarbrough said.
Afterward, Koyanagi put him in touch with a retiring goat farmer who wanted to donate his equipment to a veteran. “So I got thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment because Dean just forwarded me an email,” Yarbrough said.
“Thankfully with all these farm tours I’ve gone on and all these classes I’ve gotten, I’ve figured out where I need to be,” he said. “The biggest benefit to Farm Ops is the access to knowledge and people in related fields, so I can learn from the mistakes they’ve made and not make them myself.”
Finding redemption in the land
When Nathan Bush of Honeoye Falls, New York, entered the Air Force in 1995, military testing ranked him in the top 1 percent of his military peers in physical fitness. He served as a vehicle operator and dispatcher for 10 years, eventually earning the rank of staff sergeant. “I learned to drive a lot of different vehicles, and that was fun,” he said.
The injuries he got on the job were not.
They included multiple cases of collapsed lung and a severe immune reaction to receiving dozens of vaccinations. Compression fractures in his spine cost him three-quarters of an inch in height, and after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the fractures couldn’t receive timely treatment and continued to cause him severe pain. He was constantly preparing for deployments, but his injuries frequently forced him to stay behind.
Discharged in 2005 for medical reasons, Bush was told he’d be on medication for the rest of his life. Physical therapy only made the pain worse. Immobile and taking prescribed medications including narcotics, neuro-inhibitors and anti-psychotics, he distanced himself from the military for years.
“I was in a very dark place,” he said.
Slowly, Bush began to garden. He added chickens. The sense of purpose and the physical work offered a glimmer of relief. “I started to use farming to strengthen myself and stretch and be really intentional about all my actions,” he said. “I was amazed at what it did for me.” Within six months, he weaned himself off the medication.
Bush started attending a program at EquiCenter, a nonprofit serving those with disabilities, veterans and at-risk youth. He spent four hours weekly with other vets at the Veteran Farming and Wellness Program, partially funded by Farm Ops. They worked the center’s garden and learned how to harvest and cook what they produced. They went home with a bag of the ingredients they harvested and the recipes they made for lunch.
“I found it very powerful,” Bush said. “It was that we were eating together, cooking together, working together – veterans coming together in camraderie again. For veterans especially, if we’re feeling isolated, connection to others is the fuel for other healing work.” Now Bush runs the program as EquiCenter’s veterans outreach and programming coordinator.
"We have access through Farm Ops to some of the highest quality programming in the country. We’re really setting people up for success by having these resources that just really aren’t available otherwise for a small organization like ours."
Nathan Bush, U.S. Air Force veteran
Farm Ops, the Department of Veterans Affairs and EquiCenter are considering a collaboration to replicate the successful program in the region and perhaps the nation, with Farm Ops putting on workshops in New York state. In addition, Farm Ops is developing a vocational program at EquiCenter for vets interested in agricultural careers.
“We have access through Farm Ops to some of the highest quality programming in the country,” Bush said. “We’re really setting people up for success by having these resources that just really aren’t available otherwise for a small organization like ours.”
He continues to struggle with the memory of his military service.
“But it’s a part of my journey, and now it brings me to a place where I can reach other veterans who really need healing,” he said. “I needed that and I continue to need it, and that gives me purpose.”