N.C. military veteran helps others follow him into farming

by | Mar 3, 2021

The first week of March is “National Invest in Veterans Week” – an initiative launched in 2017 “to empower the public to invest in the veteran population.”

Veterans make up about ten percent of owners in American agriculture, forestry and fishing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s survey of business owners in 2007. With a seeming increase in veterans interested in farming, more current numbers may be different.

Robert Elliott, founder of the Veteran’s Farm of N.C.

Robert Elliott is someone investing in veterans every day through agriculture. He’s a veteran who turned to farming after his years in the Marine Corps and as a contractor for the Marine Corps. Actually, it was more a “return” to farming, as he went back to the family farm where he grew up in southern Franklin County that experienced all of the struggles of commercial ag production through the 80’s and 90’s. He originally wanted an opportunity to leave the farm in Justice and experience the world, but after 15 years of serving with the Marines, he found his only option was to return home jobless amid a recession in 2011.

“I couldn’t find a job. I tried school. Actually, I tried everything but nothing was working out. I learned really quick why veterans commit suicide immediately after leaving the service, and I had to do something. Of all the things, farming seemed like my only answer.” Elliott said.

After a couple of years of learning the small-farm business and applying as much business knowledge as possible to his operation, he began to see not only a livelihood, but also a lifestyle of purpose and hope by providing food for his community. That led to rising popularity. More and more people, including news agencies, noticed his success as a military veteran who found a second career in farming. In particular, a speech he gave on getting veterans into agriculture got a lot of attention from stakeholders of the industry in North Carolina at the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. As his story spread, veterans began to reach out to him for guidance as they pursued their own farming endeavors after their military service. Elliott said they realized ag could be a viable and meaningful career choice like he had found.

Elliott realized he could be of value to those veterans. So he made himself an official resource by founding the Veteran’s Farm of North Carolina, Inc., (VFNC). It began on his family’s multi-century farm. After the final heirs to the farm – his adopted mother and aunt – passed away in 2017, Elliott experienced what many century farms go through today – a short sale after a land grab by family members. That happened upon his aunt’s death and led to VFNC’s full relocation to the sandhills and Fort Bragg permanently.

“Vets have this mindset that if you train us, give us the tools, turn us loose and keep an eye on us, we can accomplish anything,” Elliott said.

So he decided he could use his farm to be a sort of farm trainer for interested veterans. He was also integral in launching the Soldier to Agriculture program that’s a partnership between Ft. Bragg and N.C. State’s Agriculture Institute. The program has graduated 250 soldiers transitioning out of the Army, and the Ft. Bragg transition office has said it’s by far the office’s most sought after program by transitioning soldiers. Elliott said it’s part of a broad network he’s worked to build that connects military veteran farmers.

“The farmer veteran network is about 700 to 800 deep – farmer veterans in North Carolina. We have worked very hard with them over the years to help them connect to good resources already available to them,” Elliott said. “We’re trying to piece together from scratch an infrastructure using NCDA&CS, Cooperative Extension, N.C. State’s Ag Institute and CALS, FSA, nonprofits and each other to develop new business to build up an industry of ag that will have a real impact on North Carolina’s economy.”

Elliott is seeing promise in opportunities such as the first farm-to-table restaurant run by a veteran in Fayetteville opening next year. His vision for a veteran-agriculture “micro economy” in North Carolina includes ways to help farmers produce and sell goods and services, such as farmers markets that flourish with a good customer base, building and/or partnering with certified kitchens and forming food hubs.

“We’re pretty much building a [veteran centric] ag industry from the ground up,” he said.

With so many veterans working together it’s a promising vision. Elliott is investing in the veterans who come his way by teaching them the basics they need to get started and helping to shepherd them along the way. The Veteran’s Farm of N.C. provides equipment, tools and space for hands-on mentoring and learning. Elliott depended on himself to share knowledge early on but now has support from N.C. State, NCDA, Cooperative Extension and the network of farmers. He also depends on his own farm income and donations to keep the physical resources available to veterans. His work has created an impact so sizable that it’s now depending on financial support from the community as well as seed money from USDA/
the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to begin the first hands-on, on-farm program devoted to the basic facets of agricultural production.

“We could not grow past mentorship opportunities and consultation for veterans without the community helping us in a variety of ways.” Elliott explained. “Farm equipment donations, financial support, or even skilled tradesmen and women from bulldozer operators to carpenters and drone pilots are a big help to us too.”

So anyone looking to invest in a veteran through agriculture may be interested in supporting Elliott’s mission.

“I give them the tools they need to do this,” Elliott said. “People tell me I also give them the hope and confidence to figure it out and make it happen.”

A good fit for veterans and for agriculture
Elliott sees lots of reasons farming is good for veterans and lots of reasons veterans are good for agriculture. To put it simply, many veterans need what farming offers, and agriculture needs what veterans offer.

He believes many veterans turn to farming for reasons similar to him – to find a sense of peace and purpose that can be hard to find elsewhere. His transition to the civilian world didn’t really begin until his military contracting came to an end. He described himself as being “broken, used and abused and in a recession” at the time. It was a dark time, and he felt disconnected from the military network that had been his life.

“Ultimately I think the greatest thing leading to veteran suicide in transition years is – I think it is – loss of the support network that we were used to,” Elliott said.

He said farming saved his life though. He believes farming and the veteran farmer network he’s helped build can be a lifeline for many other veterans too.

He also sees veterans as the only “ready to work group of people” that really works for the agriculture industry. He thinks veterans already have the mindset of farmers – getting up early every morning and having no choice but to work hard. If agriculture is to be the state’s biggest industry, he believes agriculture needs more people – particularly veterans.

So he’s dedicated to continuing the work of connecting veteran farmers so they can help each other, and he’s dedicated to helping them find consumers and resources that make their farming profitable. He’s offering mentorship, workshops and a soon-to-be-launched six-month on-farm training course. It will be a continuation of the N.C. State/Ft. Bragg program that ends for soldiers as soon as they leave the Army. (and it’s open to veterans from all military branches) From helping new veterans find land, borrow a $50,000 tractor, or hosting events to show off farmers’ products, Elliott wants to be there for veterans. He even has a drone available to help them with marketing videos.

“Once we give them the tools and show them all this stuff they realize, ‘holy cow I can do this,'” he said.