Farmer-in-arms: The Lives of Veteran Farmers

The following article is edited and re-published with permission from the Farmer Veteran Coalition.


A smooth transition from military service to civilian life is a tall order, especially when one has seen the effects of war and has faced life-threatening situations. As many as 20 percent of all Iraq War veterans come home only to find themselves plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nearly half of the post-9/11 veterans surveyed also report experiencing more family problems after coming home.

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As a balm to soothe the tired soul, veterans often look to nature for catharsis. “Farms have been a place of refuge for centuries for soldiers coming home from war. It’s an old tradition that goes back to Biblical times,” says Michael O'Gorman, founder of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans transition to farming.

But O’Gorman points out that more than healing, the demands of farming also returns a sense of purpose to veterans. “We found early on that veterans were looking for something that was both challenging but more importantly meaningful. Farming just checked all the boxes, there was not a lot of downside to it. It provided a healing environment and it was great for men and women who wanted to do something that didn’t entail sitting behind a desk and responded to their own personal effort, blood sweat and tears. [Veterans] also responded to the fact that our country is in critical need for framers. As individuals and as a collective, they felt they were once again on a mission.”

According to the Labor Department, the median age for farmers and ranchers is approaching 60. By encouraging veterans to transition into farming, O’Gorman sees a win-win situation where the local food supply is buffered while offering military vets a glimpse at a new life.

Meet a few of the veterans who have taken up a different and no less important calling, providing a sustainable food supply for the United States of America.

Story continues below

Jon Darling

Darling Farm, McClellanville, SC

On the morning of September 11, 2001, like most Americans, Jon Darling’s life changed in an instant.

After watching the second plane crash into World Trade Center Tower 2 on live television, he decided at that moment to join the military.

Ten days later, still engulfed in the emotions of the aftermath of the attacks, Darling enlisted in the Army as a cook. Thirty days after that, the Dover Plains, New York, native was on a one-way flight to Army Basic Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Jon Darling
Jon Darling

“I felt hollow at that moment,” Darling said in a serious tone. “I was angry. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I wanted to do something better in my life and the Army allowed me to do that.”

After graduating basic training, Darling would go on to attend both Airborne School and the Ranger Indoctrination Program at Fort Benning, Georgia, before being sent to 1st Ranger Battalion at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia.

As a soldier in one of the Army’s elite fighting forces, Darling was no stranger to deployments, logging six over the course of his four-year enlistment, including two in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and three in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Like many veterans, Darling didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life after separating from the Army. However, with his newfound freedom, he would spend the better part of a decade traveling, DJ’ing and working various jobs in the restaurant industry, to include a brief stint as a restaurant owner.

Jon Darling
Jon Darling

Realizing he wasn’t happy with the direction his life was heading, and after a few run-ins with law enforcement, Darling knew he needed a change.

“I felt like I was falling from grace,” said Darling, who has an associate’s degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s degree in hotel/restaurant management. “I struggled with myself and was angry and depressed most of the time. I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere and was starting to question my character.”

It was during this time in 2012 when Darling discovered farming. Deciding to take a long drive to clear his head with his dog, Penne Pasta, he headed north on South Carolina’s Highway 17 where he came across Thornhill Farms.

While Darling began his education in livestock production at Thornhill Farms, he was thrust into uncertainty — a familiar position for many farmers — multiple times due to a series of disputes after the farm was sold to a new ownership group. Despite this uncertainty, Darling was allowed to farm at the Thornhill location until September 2015, when he was informed that he and his 100 livestock animals were being forced to vacate the premises.

With the help of Farmer Veteran Coalition, Darling was able to secure 20-acres of land by the end of December 2015. Today, Darling Farm’s operation has expanded to 60 pigs and 60 sheep, which he slaughters and sells the cuts of meat to local markets, restaurants and community members.

Jon Darling
Jon Darling

Nate Looney

Ouroboros Farms, Half Moon Bay, CA

Nate Looney is not your typical farmer.

Young, fit and full of enthusiasm, he bears few similarities with an aging farming population that is dwindling with each new harvest.

“Food is the next great war,” Looney said in a serious tone. “Food security in general and penetrating food deserts is an all-encompassing battle. Who better to fight than seasoned soldiers? We understand duty, service and dedication in the same way that our current aging farming population does. We, as veterans, will continue to bear the torch.”

Nate Looney
Nate Looney

Born and raised in Los Angeles’ Windsor Hills neighborhood, Looney, 31, dreamed of serving in the armed forces since he was a child. At the age of 18, during his freshman year of college at San Francisco State University, he decided it was time to challenge himself, so he joined the National Guard to gain “real world experience and opportunities to grow as a leader.”

Serving as a military policeman assigned to the 239th Military Police Company in the Louisiana National Guard, Looney quickly found the challenge he was seeking. In 2005, amidst the deadliest natural disaster in recent U.S. history, his unit was activated to assist local law enforcement with evacuation, and law and order operations in support of Hurricane Katrina.

“Honestly, I never expected to see destruction and devastation to that magnitude in the United States,” he said. “The devastation was sweeping. During the storm, roads became raging rivers and there was debris flying in the air. After the storm, the devastation was more apparent in the faces of survivors that came to the Superdome for refuge.”

Looney’s unit remained activated for six months after the storm, and would eventually be re-activated to alleviate the manpower issues New Orleans Police Department was facing. His unit served this role for two years, a testament to how dire the situation remained in New Orleans post-Katrina.

Nate Looney
Nate Looney

Then, in 2008, while serving with the 228th Military Police Company, Looney deployed to Iraq’s Al Anbar Province where his unit served as the private security detail for high-ranking military officials and VIPs.

“When I think about being in Iraq, I think about the parallels in destruction I saw in New Orleans after Katrina,” he said. “Coming off two years patrolling the streets of New Orleans, I felt that all I experienced not only solidified my sense of duty, but also prepared me to serve my country in Iraq.”

After eight years of honorable service, Looney separated from the National Guard in 2011 with plans to transition into a civilian police force, but a shattered economy and rampant hiring freezes led him to a stint as a real estate agent. The real estate market wasn’t any better, so, with the encouragement from mentors, he decided to go back to school, this time at American Jewish University, where he earned a degree in business.

During his senior year, Looney became interested in agriculture, particularly the area of urban farming and conservation. During this time, he began growing vegetables as a hobby and was fascinated by the growth process.

Nate Looney
Nate Looney

“I focused on researching urban agriculture and drought tolerant edible solutions, which further led me to aquaponics where we use 90 percent less water to grow food in a fraction of the time and fraction of the space needed for traditional growing methods,” he said. “I was off to the races.”

Though this was Looney’s first foray into agriculture, farming isn’t just a passion for him, it’s in his blood. Looney comes from a long line of farmers. His great-great-great grandparents were slaves who, after gaining their freedom, cleared approximately 240 acres in northern Louisiana and established a farm that is still family operated today.

Despite Looney’s lineage to farming, it did not become his sole focus until September 2015. With the help of Farmer Veteran Coalition and The San Francisco Foundation, he was able to embark on a three-month program with Ouroboros Farms, where Looney learned about aquaponics while living in San Francisco and receiving a stipend to help with expenses.

Having finished the aquaponics program at Ouroboros in February, Looney is focused on refining his business plan and launching Westside Urban Gardens, an urban aquaponics-based agribusiness in Los Angeles.

Steve & Stephen Heringer

Heringer Estates Family Vineyards & Winery, Clarksburg, CA

Situated on a fertile swath of land along Sacramento’s River Delta in the town of Clarksburg, California, Steve and his son, Stephen, both proud Army veterans, are the fifth and sixth generation to farm the land. The tradition of military service, however, began with fourth-generation farmer Lester Heringer.

Established in 1868 after their ancestors arrived in California from Holland, the Heringer’s farmland was used to produce tomatoes, alfalfa, pears, peaches, prunes, corn, wheat and sugar beets among other items. Lester began farming the land in 1946 after returning home from World War II where he served as a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Much to his surprise, there was a new mission waiting for him upon his return.

Steve & Stephen Heringer
Steve & Stephen Heringer

With a labor shortage plaguing agriculture as a result of the war, Lester was tasked with overseeing 250 German prisoners of war in a farm labor camp that was set up on 10-acres of land near the Heringer farm.

“They were actually a good bunch of young fellas,” Lester said in a 2013 interview with the Davis Enterprise. “But they weren’t here because they wanted to be.”

Lester, who passed away in November 2015 at the age of 97, continued farming for many years and was joined by his son, Steve, who also returned to the farm after serving his country overseas.

Steve & Stephen Heringer
Steve & Stephen Heringer

Steve began farming when he was 14 years old and went on to earn an agricultural business degree from Fresno State University before being drafted into the Army and serving in Vietnam. Upon returning to the farm in 1973 after completing his service and a master’s degree from Fresno State, the Heringer family laid the roots for its present-day operation by planting their first wine grape vineyards.

In 2002, Steve and his brother, Duke, decided to shift the farm’s focus to grape production and wine sales, and Heringer Estates Family Vineyards & Winery was born.

Ten years later, after serving 12 years in the Army and California National Guard and logging more than 1,100 combat hours flying helicopters on two deployments to Iraq, Stephen followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by also returning home to the family farm.

Today, Stephen serves as the vineyard manager for Heringer Estates Family Vineyards & Winery and is responsible for day-to-day operations of the 385-acre vineyard that produces 25 different varietals. Though his father, Steve, has retired, Stephen is still surrounded by family. His brother, Mike, is the winemaker and his sister, Stacy Heringer-McElfish, is the wine club manager.

Steve & Stephen Heringer
Steve & Stephen Heringer

Elaine Bellows

Bellows Farm, Eaton Rapids, MI

Though she’s been around farming most of her life, Elaine Bellows never planned on becoming a cattle rancher.

Elaine Bellows
Elaine Bellows

After a 32-year career in nursing — 20 of which were spent in the Army — Bellows was more comfortable in an emergency room than on the open range.

Then tragedy struck.

Her husband, Greg, of 25 years unexpectedly passed away last year leaving her as the sole owner and operator of Bellows Farm, the family’s 275-acre cattle operation in Eaton Rapids, Michigan.

Rather than sell off the farm’s assets, and rent the land to another farmer, Bellows decided to take control and push forward as the head of the farm. Now, she is reorganizing the business from a Holstein to Hereford cattle operation.

“One day I wasn’t (farming), the next day the whole thing was my responsibility, and my mentor was not available for questions,” said Bellows, describing her unfortunate path to taking charge of Bellows Farm. “I’m the woman of the house, who’s become the man of the house and the farm owner/manager overnight.”

Cattle ranching isn’t the first later-in-life career move for the 65-year-old farmer veteran. At the age of 34, after her children were born and in grade school, Bellows went back to school and earned an associate degree in nursing. After serving ten years as a civilian nurse, she realized in order to advance in the field she needed further education. Looking for ways to pay for school led her to explore her options with the Army Reserve.

Elaine Bellows
Elaine Bellows

“The Army would pay for my degree and I would be obligated for a length of time to pay it back,” she said. “It sounded like a great ‘part time job’ and I commissioned into the U.S. Army Reserve as a first lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps, and enrolled in college to get my bachelor’s degree in nursing.”

During her 20-year career in the Army, which included eight years on active duty and began shortly after Desert Storm, Bellows served with a combat support hospital unit before being selected for a special detail with the Inspector General.

In 2006 while serving with the Inspector General, Bellows received orders to Iraq for 12 months, where she traveled to various forward operating bases for inspections, investigations and soldier assistance.

In the year since Bellows took over the farm, she has been focused on growing the Hereford breeding stock while phasing out the Holstein beef herd. She has also changed the focus of the farms’ 170 acres of tillable land from corn, which was used to feed the Holstein beef cattle operation, to crops.

Today, Bellows, who is assisted by her farmhand, Thomas, is focused on a first successful season that will, hopefully, end with their finances in the positive.

“As this is my first year being totally responsible for the farm’s success, I’m focusing right now through to the end of the season and harvest of the crops that have been planted,” she said. “Seeing this first year through to completion and hopefully showing a bottom line in the black will make me feel quite good. A good first year can be replicated quite easily with the notes and bookkeeping of the first year. Thankfully my husband’s notes did that for me.”

Top image: Nate Looney

All photos courtesy of Farmer Veteran Coalition.

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