Organic Broadcaster

Farmer-veterans connect to share production ideas, resources

By Ryan Erisman, Farmer Veteran Coalition

Ron Jost raises grass-fed beef and pastured pork on his farm near Cleveland, Wis. Jost, a former Army intelligence analyst, sought farming advice from the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Photo submitted

Ron Jost raises grass-fed beef and pastured pork on his farm near Cleveland, Wis. Jost, a former Army intelligence analyst, sought farming advice from the Farmer Veteran Coalition.
Photo submitted

Ron Jost (pronounced ‘Yost’) got in over his head. When he came back from Afghanistan for the last time in December 2014, the former cop and Army intelligence analyst put together a plan for his next career. His father wanted to retire from working the family’s Cleveland, Wisconsin farm, and Ron wanted to transition it to a grass-fed beef operation.

While making the final preparations for getting cattle in December 2015, Ron wanted to get “a few hogs on the side” to till up an old pasture. He wanted Mangalitsas, a Hungarian lard hog known for its wooly coat. He knew that chefs prized the Mangalitsas for their marbling and fat quality.

“I went to a breeder to buy a few, and she told me she wanted to sell the whole herd—sows, boars, barrows, gilts, feeders—everything,” Jost explained. “It was a great price.” He paused. “Then I had to feed ’em.

“I was in over my head pretty quickly. At the USDA office, I grabbed the business card for a Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) representative in Wisconsin and emailed him that night.”

The email that landed in my mailbox ended with “Please Help.” I’m the Midwest Regional Ambassador for the Farmer Veteran Coalition. I come at this from both sides. I grew up on an organic farm in Illinois and served 10 years as a Marine infantry officer with two tours in Iraq. I recently started my own farm in Sun Prairie, but I still help farmer-veterans in the region plug into services and available programs.

Ron and I talked for over an hour on our first phone call. I asked him about his military background and then gave him mine. It’s a good icebreaker. I had him walk me though his situation, his finances, and his decision-making up to this point.

“Ryan gave me good advice on shelters, watering systems, and fencing that wouldn’t cost too much,” Ron recalled.

When I talk to fellow vets, mostly, I’m just a listener. I ask questions and get them to think “out-loud” through their issues and options.

“Ryan got me to put on the brakes,” Ron noted. “I had it in my head that I had to accomplish all these things, and he had me step back and look at the long-term goals.”

We talked again in a few days and then the week after that. We’d end our conversations with Ron deciding on his next moves, and then he’d get back to me in a week. I don’t do any hand-holding—if people need that, they don’t have any business going into farming.

“Ryan broke down my situation almost like a mission analysis: This is what you have to accomplish, this is what you have to avoid, this is what you can put off until later. He got me to think about the logistics. I got back to work with a lot more focus,” Ron said.

For the past few years, I have also taken charge of organizing FVC members to attend the annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference. It’s the best networking and education opportunity we can offer to our members in the region.

“Ryan really wanted me to go to this farming conference in La Crosse,” Ron remembered. “I wasn’t sure I could get away. He said he’d had a cancellation and had a spot for me. I did my chores on Friday morning [Feb. 26th] and drove across Wisconsin. I was amazed by the presentations and seeing so many other small farmers like me.”

FVC and The Pasture Project sponsored a farmer-veteran networking session on Friday evening at the MOSES Conference. We got 32 farmer-veterans in the room. It was supposed to be a two-hour event; it lasted four hours.

“I had a blast,” Ron said. “Ryan got us talking to each other based on our farming enterprises. We were swapping production ideas and war stories round and round. I’d felt like I was struggling alone, and I suddenly realized I was part of this group—all these other veterans who were farming or just breaking into farming, like me. Then there was everything I learned at the conference. It was a huge boost.”

Things have gone well for Ron since the last MOSES Conference. He didn’t need any help on the marketing end—Jost Farms Heritage Pork is now served at The America Club in Kohler, Wisconsin, the only five-diamond restaurant in the Midwest.

On a national level, the Farmer Veteran Coalition, based in Davis, California, offers several programs and opportunities for members. The Fellowship Fund accepts applications annually and awards the most qualified applicants with micro-grants to purchase a needed piece of equipment or infrastructure. Geared to Give—a partnership with Kubota Tractor orporation— awards one L-series tractor per quarter to a Fellowship Fund recipient. The Homegrown by Heroes label certifies members’ products as veteran grown and produced. The coalition organizes the annual Farmer Veteran Stakeholders Conference and the Empowering Women Veterans Conference. It also partners with USDA, Farm Credit, Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, AgrAbility, NCAT/ATTRA, and countless regional and local organizations dedicated to helping farmers and veterans.

Veterans who want to join the Farmer Veteran Coalition or have questions about coalition services can go to www.farmvetco.org or call 530-756-1395.

Ron and I stay in touch, bouncing ideas off each other, and sharing our latest experiences. But this isn’t just about veterans helping veterans. The majority of farmer veterans we have surveyed are happy to learn from any farmer or researcher who is competent and professional. This is about connecting people. There are few forces more powerful than strong relationships between people. I know what it’s like to fight with the strength of those relationships on my side. Farmers and veterans are often independent people, but we need to spend more time working with each other and building those relationships. Each of us has something to share, and each of us has something to learn. We need to take the time to reach out and “each one teach one.”

Ryan Erisman is the Midwest Regional Ambassador for the Farmer Veteran Coalition.

From the September | October 2016 Issue

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