Veterans Are Putting Down Their Guns and Taking Up Farming

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

Usually organic products are at a premium, he says, but when the produce is grown in-season and the transportation cost is minimal, it keeps the end price down. Another bonus is the simple dialogue between the farmer and the cook.

"Last time Steve was in here we talked about what I'd like to see in the coming months, so it's great to be able to have that conversation with a local farmer and then eventually have it on the menu," Harris says.

Several restaurants in the Bishop Arts District are also working on incorporating Eat The Yard's vegetables into their kitchens. Jeffers has even arranged a two-way exchange for composting: While delivering the produce, he picks up waste from some of the restaurants to add to composting piles, bringing the cycle full circle.

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.

While Jeffers and Smith talk about the rewards of their work, another goal they have for Eat the Yard is to help other veterans who are struggling through the difficult process of acclimating back to civilian life. They want to help them find a fulfilling role as well.

"The idea is that we bring in other veterans as interns and teach them the work and the business," Smith says. "Then, they build their own networks within their own communities, and so on and so on."

Smith also has other motives for bringing in vets — they have the work ethic required for farming. "A lot of people are interested in urban farming, but they get tired of it and quit when it gets hard. Veterans won't quit."

Eat The Yard is still early in the game, though. Additional employees are a way off, much less retirement-proof profits. "When you look at all the work that goes into growing just one stalk of kale, then taking it to a store or restaurant to sell it," says Smith, pausing. "It's hard right now."

The latest information from the Organic Trade Association (OTA) shows that sales of organic foods rose more than 9 percent from 2010 to 2011. Going back to 2002, the organic segment has grown more than 238 percent. And while the OTA report warns against "consumer confusion over the benefit of organic versus natural versus non-GMO versus local" they heed the importance of the local "sweet spot," where consumers with a limited budget choose cheaper local products over pricier imported organic options.

Other vet-operated organic farms around the nation are capitalizing on that very niche. Former Marine Sergeant Colin Archipley and his wife, Karen, founded Archi's Acres in Escondido, California, in 2006. They transformed a rundown and neglected avocado orchard into an organic hydroponic farm. Now, in addition to working the farm and selling produce, they employ and train other vets. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart did a segment on the farm, which focused on former MSNBC pundit Dylan Ratigan, who traded his life in front of a camera to invest in Archi's Acres.

After years of running the farm, the Archipleys have learned plenty about the challenges of the modern-day farmer. Karen puts it in perspective: "It's hard, but I also think military life can be pretty hard. Agriculture gives vets a mission that is greater than themselves."

And in terms of the market for local organic produce, they can't keep up with demand. "There's never enough," Karen says.

Jeffers and Smith are working on similar plans, specifically greenhouses and hydroponic systems, which are the most sustainable method of growing large amounts of produce, but those setups don't come cheap. And while they try to cultivate the ground they currently have, the challenges come at them every day.

"We live in such a blessed society," Smith says. "We don't appreciate that we have pineapples in stores year-round. That just fascinates me. But if I'm ever going to fully retire from foundation repair and be an Oak Cliff farmer, the community has to support it."

There's no doubt that Dallasites are supporting more local farmers. More people are asking questions about what's in their food, how it's grown, where it's from and how all of that affects their long-term health. These are the very same reasons Jeffers and Smith dug up their yards in the first place.

As local communities embrace urban gardens, organic produce and the farm-to-table movement, there's an opportunity for veterans like Jeffers and Smith to gracefully slide into the crucial role of the new American farmer. With some luck, they'll help us till and toil our way back to health, one row and yard at a time.

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