Veterans Are Putting Down Their Guns and Taking Up Farming

In Oak Cliff, ex-warriors charge into the local food movement.

"They've been great to us," Jeffers says. "We traveled up to Iowa and Philadelphia to tour different farms and learn about different strategies for farming on small plots of land from vets that are already in business."

Particularly, they visited farms that were practicing small-plot intensive farming, an agriculture system based on highly productive small-scale farming techniques.

"It's really about commercial farming on less than an acre," says Jeffers, which is why the courses appealed to him and Smith.

Vets James Jeffers (left) and Steve Smith are farming Oak Cliff one yard at a time.
Dylan Hollingsworth
Vets James Jeffers (left) and Steve Smith are farming Oak Cliff one yard at a time.
After their time in the Army, Jeffers and Smith have turned to the nice soil of Oak Cliff to get back to health.
Dylan Hollingsworth
After their time in the Army, Jeffers and Smith have turned to the nice soil of Oak Cliff to get back to health.

Ross Erickson, a former Marine sergeant with the FVC, says the organization sees a trend across the country of veterans looking for a meaningful, and often rewarding, line of work.

"It helps vets feel like they're part of something important," Erickson says. "They come back and need a meaning and a purpose in their work."

With help through the FVC, trips to other farms and their own experiences, Jeffers and Smith were ready to take the next step. Just this year they started an urban farming business, Eat the Yard (

Now they're working to collect more premium space throughout Oak Cliff and Dallas. At West 9th Street and Zang Boulevard, across from Cliff Temple Baptist Church, part of a large city block has been transformed into a community garden with more than a dozen narrow, raised beds lined up side by side. Different groups and individuals tend the various plots, which are owned by the church.

Jeffers manages several of the beds and seeded one with Swiss chard in late winter. The crop grew tall with thick dark leaves balancing on bright red stalks. He had to mend a fence to keep out a stray dog that was trampling the young stems, but for the most part, plots like this come along quickly. As soon as the chard was ready, he carefully harvested and washed the big leaves and then delivered them to local restaurants and stores, like Ann's Health Food Center and Market, which is located farther south on Zang Boulevard.

Among community gardens, friends who have offered up their yards and tomato planters on rooftops, Smith and Jeffers estimate they have a solid acre of vegetable-producing land scattered throughout the city. That might not seem like much, but it's a lot of work for the two of them, especially since Smith's main job is in foundation repair.

When asked about the viability of making a living selling organic produce, the two laugh a little. It's a nervous laugh. They worry about the feasibility of this venture "every night." Rehabilitation and meaningful goals aside, local organic produce is more expensive than its mass-farmed counterpart and managing a large working farm spread out across Dallas is no easy task.

Jeffers' ultimate goal is to develop the business enough that he can get off disability. Smith dreams of moving his family to the country and providing produce to a much larger area.

Smith realizes the idea of succeeding with a local farm in Dallas comes with a mountain of challenges. "It's hard to convince most people that a $4 bundle of hyper-local organic kale, harvested just that morning, is better than the anonymous, yet cheaper brand next to it at the store. It's hard to put a born-on date on kale."

Nevertheless, some are biting. Urban Acres, an Oak Cliff-based farm stand and grocery store, started a community co-op in 2009, filling bins with local organic fruits, vegetables and proteins. They began with just 19 families and now have more than 2,000 members who pick up seasonal products every two weeks.

Urban Acres marketing director Brandon Perez says the move toward farm-to-table is exploding across the metro area. Urban Acres now has 12 small "farm stands" (co-op pickup points) throughout the area, including spots in Frisco and McKinney. What's most interesting to Perez is the broadening demographics of the typical co-op buyer.

"It looks different, and it's quite beautiful," Perez says. "It's great to see the connection between the hipster in Oak Cliff that drives a Prius and a mom in Frisco that drives an Escalade. They both have a desire for real whole food. The commitment isn't tied to a movement necessarily anymore. It comes from more of an overall concern for our health."

That commitment from the co-op members also helps ensure farmers have buyers for their produce, which eases the risk in this fickle business. While Eat the Yard supplies fresh produce to some local restaurants and grocery stores, primarily Ann's Health Food, it doesn't produce enough food yet to take part in the co-op program regularly.

Some restaurants go so far as to provide on the menu the name of the farm from which a carrot was plucked, but any chef worth his weight in curry powder is by design inclined to buy seasonal and local whenever he can.

Bolsa chef Jeff Harris is an example.

"For the past few years we've seen new farmers pop up here and there," Harris says, "and it's really helping us to catch up with other parts of the country in those terms. We certainly have our limitations with the weather and growing season in Texas, but being able to buy something that is grown literally down the street is awesome."

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If every city were to embrace this idea, it would put a dent in Monsanto, no?