Veterans find peace and purpose through agriculture

When Tim and Dawn Smith retired from the Air Force, they made plans and built their dream retirement home. Within a few years, what they thought were set plans changed drastically, and the couple decided to pursue a lifestyle in agriculture.

They bought 40 acres of land in Reeltown and now raise purebred Angus beef and grow a variety of vegetables on Lone Oak Farm, which is also where they live.

“Everything has just fallen into place. Farming is therapeuti, and watching something grow from the tiniest little seed into vegetables is fulfilling,” said Dawn Smith, who never thought she’d find herself working on a farm.

Tim Smith on the other hand, grew up on a farm and always knew he wanted to work on one again.

The Smiths received  financial help through Alabama Agriculture Credit; grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service; support from Farmer Veterans Coalition; and information from the Extension Office, which has helped the couple kick off their new adventure.

“People don’t realize the impact the farm credit system and all these other organizations have for veterans looking to start working in agriculture,” said Smith.

Homegrown by Heroes is one aspect of this support. It’s a label Smith and other military folks can position on their products to show consumers that military veterans are the producers. This in turn supports veterans. The Alabama Ag Credit, through its parent organization, financially supported the development of that marketing strategy in conjunction with the Farmer Veteran Coalition. To use the label, merchants have to prove their military experiences, with honorable discharges.

The couple started with two bred heifers that eventually delivered their first calves – Elvis and Eve. They now have 10 females at a mix of ages. As calves are born, the heifers are added to the herd, and the steers become freezer beef.

They eat grass and hay but also have a grain mix, which leads to the proper marbling finish when butchering.

“We have recently developed a working relationship with a USDA-inspected processor, so we are now able to sell beef by the eighth, quarter and half bundle,” said Smith.

The Natural Resource Conservation Service has a category for new farmers within its grants program. By qualifying for that category, the Smiths received assistance with cross-fencing pastures to more efficiently graze their land and grow hay.

This way cows eat in smaller areas at a time before moving on to another, thus allowing the original to grow back. The ideal spacing per cow is 2.5 acres, Smith said, so they only plan to stock as many animals as their land could comfortably support.

“You don’t want to have too many cows and not enough land. We want them to live a happy life and be able to move around conveniently,” said Smith.

This past summer, Smith grew three different kinds of tomatoes, two kinds of peppers, two kinds of okra, corn and green beans. The produce will change throughout the season as Smith learns more techniques.

She has taken the Master Gardener class through the county extension office and was recently awarded the title.

Teaching others to appreciate the source of food is important to the couple as well.

“God told me to teach people how to feed themselves. I have a master’s degree in adult education, and I wasn’t using my training. This is an opportunity to teach a generation that doesn’t understand where food comes from,” Smith added.

The couple received a grant, which helped with some funding for a hoop house. A company came out to drive the posts in the ground, and the Smiths built the rest.

This past winter, they sold green tomatoes grown in the hoop house, and soon will have spinach, snow peas and other cool-season crops there this spring. Additionally, they planted 1,800 strawberry plants last fall and plan to have fresh strawberries available in early April. In the fall, they plan to start a pumpkin patch.

“We will only sell healthy vegetables. When you know where your food is coming from, you can explain what’s been done to it,” said Smith.

Another future goal for the farm is to apply aquaponics to the vegetable gardening, which is a symbiotic fish and vegetable growth.

Not only do they work on the land, but also they built a house on site, which they deem a “barn-diminium.” Alabama Ag Credit was influential in this as well. The back two thirds of the steel building houses a workshop, and the front third is 1,800 square feet of living space. The rustic, cozy home boasts reclaimed wood, reused objects and an old barn door.

Wood from pine trees that were cut down from the land was turned into shiplap on the walls. Reclaimed wood in the master bedroom still has some paint on it, which Smith said, adds character. A beam above the fireplace came from a 200-year-old barn, and ceiling joists from an old house were used as the countertops in the kitchen and stair treads to the second floor.

The house opens up to a long porch that faces the sunset with two rocking chairs for the Smiths to take in the view.

“It’s such a peaceful environment and great for mental health,” said Smith.

Farming is a lifestyle that never stops, she added. While the two veteranss traveled a lot and spent time in many different places, they are now happy to call Lone Oak Farm their home.

“In the military you are part of something bigger than yourself, and that’s the same thing with agriculture,” said Smith. “So many veterans don’t know that there’s a potential career here after retirement, but it’s such a natural transition.”