Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
O n a muddy spring afternoon in Corrales, Jessica Andrews inspects lettuce rows inside a warm greenhouse at Silver Leaf Farms.
The U.S. Navy veteran is starting a new career in agriculture now that she has returned to New Mexico from her post in Hawaii.
Andrews is hoping to reinvigorate a plot of family land in Española as a small farm.
“I really love the idea of growing my own food to sustain myself and the local community,” she said.
Andrews and 30 other New Mexico residents gathered in Albuquerque for “Armed to Farm,” a weeklong program that teaches military veterans how to run an agricultural business.
The National Center for Appropriate Technology has trained 900 veterans in the last decade through the free initiative.
A mix of classroom instruction and site visits gives the beginning farmers confidence and connections, said program director Margo Hale, who also leads the agriculture organization’s southeastern region.
“They’re getting to see successful farms in action and get their hands dirty,” Hale said. “It’s great for them to pick up ideas of things that might work for their own farms and ranches.”
Training sessions include recordkeeping and goal setting, funding opportunities, soil health, planning and risk, beekeeping, water conservation and marketing.
The group visited local cattle ranches and hog farms to learn about selling products at farmers markets and restaurants.
Several urban farms taught the group how to make the most of small spaces and limited water.
Hale enjoys seeing the participants connect over shared experiences of military service and farming goals.
“Veterans make really great farmers,” she said, “and we always need more people growing awesome food for their communities.”
For Ashley Cook, an Army veteran who grew up on a Fort Sumner hay farm, the training will help her and her husband tackle challenges as they grow produce and raise chickens in a dry climate.
“We’ve learned so much in the classroom and at the farms that we never knew, and never knew to even ask about,” Cook said.
The program showcases federal programs to fund rural businesses.
A focus on sustainability encourages the group not to just rely on the “old way of doing things,” Cook said.
“We didn’t realize that some of the practices that are currently being used on the farm are actually damaging the soil, and it’s something we can take back to help us improve,” she said.
Amanda Cordero and Jon Erickson married after meeting while deployed on a Navy ship near Guam.
They joined the program to learn how to transform their barren plot of land north of Hatch back into a farming operation.
“It’s so important to have a connection to our food,” Cordero said. “Especially in this climate, learning about soil health and nutrients has been amazing.”
This year the program is also hosting trainings in Texas, California and North Carolina.
The veterans said they feel a similar sense of community and mission in agriculture as they did during their time in the military.
Program participants can access NCAT’s consultations, technical assistance and webinars.
“The agriculture community in New Mexico is so willing to help the newbies coming into it,” Andrews said. “They’re like, ‘this is what we know, this is where we messed up, these are lessons learned.’ Everybody’s working together.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.