Dec 19, 2018A combat veteran’s journey toward growing, selling produce
A surprising number of military veterans find themselves doing the peaceful work of a produce grower.
And that unlikely transition is no less surprising to the veterans themselves. One case study is Jeremy Huffman, a Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq from 2004-2005.
The highlights of Huffman’s military career include handling logistics for the battle of Fallujah and later for Iraqi elections, as well as the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Today, he grows produce in eastern Michigan’s Swartz Creek, a 10-acre farm with one greenhouse and four high tunnels.
Huffman and his wife, Valerie, purchased the farm in 2015, after becoming interested in sustainable agriculture. Taking on a farm operation – they’ve called it Huffman’s Homestead – felt like an empowering step.
“We wanted our do this for ourselves,” he said. “We’ve taken ownership of our lives.”
They have grown 8-10 vegetable crops over the course of the season, and this year added raspberries and strawberries to help diversify their product offering.
Much of the first two years has been an education. The fresh crops he has produced in the first two years have been sold through a Community Supported Agriculture program. This year he also sold produce at a public market in Flint, Michigan, filing “onerous” paperwork in order to qualify for purchases through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or what’s commonly called food stamps, and the Double Up Food Bucks program.
The satisfaction of selling in a Flint market made up for the difficult paperwork.
“It’s very satisfying to put that kind of work out there,” he said. Flint – nationally known for its water quality disaster – also has a shortage of good food sources, leading to what researchers commonly call “food deserts” in urban areas. Providing residents with leafy greens and antioxidants is a rewarding experience.
The physical work outdoors and planning fit with the mission-oriented nature of military veterans, Huffman said. The work is also very peaceful. It’s a good fit.
“I know that I was interested in it and that I was enjoying it, but what I’m witnessing was surprising to me,” he said. “I see an explosion of veterans coming into agriculture. Across the board, I’m seeing more and more veterans who are trying to get this figured out.”
Military veterans who find a second calling in agriculture still need to learn the ropes, Huffman said.
“You’re talking about high-school educated guys, mostly,” he said.
As director of the Michigan Food and Farming Systems Veterans in Ag Network, Huffman helps veterans navigate the USDA, FSA, NRCS and other agencies, to be able to sell their food to their communities.
There’s a realization that new, smaller growers to some degree compete against mass production. Huffman said that in the time he harvests 100 heads of lettuce, a larger grower could harvest 10,000. And the margins for mass producers are very small – Huffman has noticed that a gallon of milk will retail for nearly a dollar less than a gallon of filtered water that bottlers draw free from wells in Michigan.
Nevertheless, the Marine motto is Semper Fi, and Huffman continues on with his work to develop his own farm and teach other military veterans.
For his third year in agriculture, Huffman is planning to get bigger, working on developing bulk produce sales and becoming profitable. He’s attempting to go all organic, and has been planning out permaculture zones and succession planting for next season’s crops.
“We’ve been fleshing all of this stuff out,” he said.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories about veterans in specialty crop agriculture.
Top photo: Marine combat veteran Jeremy Huffman works on plants at his farm. Photos: Huffman Homestead