Cattle and farmers from Mesquite Field Farm pose earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Doug Havemann.
Cattle and farmers from Mesquite Field Farm earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Doug Havemann.

Texas A&M University-San Antonio and the U.S. Department of Agriculture began the process of transforming local veterans into farmers on Saturday. Battleground to Breaking Ground is among many other Texas agriculture programs intended to increase the number of local farmers and create long-term jobs for returning veterans.

The day’s programming focused on business development rather than the actual practice of farming. At the end of the day, participants had learned about the economics of different crops and the process of organic certification. Instructors outlined financing strategies, including available loans and grants. The rest of the lessons were related to sales strategies, marketing, how to sell at farmers markets, and how to create a subscription-based CSA model for their farms.

Military veterans learn about the process of starting a farm at Battleground to Breaking Ground. Photo by Erin Pilosi.
Military veterans learn about the process of starting a farm at Battleground to Breaking Ground. Photo by Erin Pilosi.

Since 2012, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension has educated about 450 farm startup participants in their program. Most of their programming has been in Central Texas, but they’ve also branched out to McAllen and El Paso.

In other states, such as Colorado, huge numbers of those with military experience have been converted to producers. The discipline and hard work required to cultivate the land are qualities that the armed forces consistently develop. Nearly 45% of the military comes from rural communities, compared with one-sixth of the total population, so when they return farming jobs are closer to home than most Americans would expect.

Though veteran status was not a required, most of the 33 attendees on Saturday were veterans who learned about the program through their military networks. A couple of participants are already commercial farmers, but most were brand new to farming, meeting experts and fellow amateurs alike. According to organizer Erin Pilosi, most had land that they are considering cultivating. Most farmers were from San Antonio and the surrounding area, but a few participants came all the way from Houston and Adelaide.

One of the instructors, Doug Havemann, finished his military service and found some much needed peace raising grass-fed cattle when he and his wife, Melissa, began Mesquite Field Farm. In addition to growing premium beef, Havemann grows artemisia and garlic.

Doug and Melissa Havemann talk about their experience cattle ranching at Texas Agrilife's Battleground to Breaking Ground. Photo by Erin Pilosi.
Doug and Melissa Havemann talk about their experience cattle ranching at Texas Agrilife’s Battleground to Breaking Ground. Photo by Erin Pilosi.

Mesquite Field Farm sells directly to either restaurants or individuals, bypassing the usual customers of wholesalers and distributors. Their artemisia, which can be made into absinthe, was on showcase at Battleground to Breaking Ground as Chef Stephen Paprocki made his signature absinthe ice-cream during lunch using a process that combines liquid nitrogen, vanilla, and the distinctive herb. Mesquite Field Farm and Chef Paprocki represent an emerging trend in farm-to-table relationships.

Lunch was provided by Pullin Premium Barbecue. Other speakers included the state director of the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The programming was created in conjunction with the Texas AgrAbility program, which was created to help those with disabilities overcome obstacles to become farmers. After much success, AgrAbility has evolved as a broader educational platform to the Agrilife program. The instructors encourage anyone interested in farming in contacting Agrilife to discover resources and connections to help them get started.

Cattle rancher Doug Havemann (left) poses with the crew from Pullin Barbecue during lunch at Battleground to Breaking Ground. Photo by Erin Pilosi
Cattle rancher Doug Havemann (left) poses with the crew from Pullin Barbecue during lunch at Battleground to Breaking Ground. Photo by Erin Pilosi

Registration and lunch for Saturday’s program were both free, funded by the USDA through a National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant. Over a billion dollars of the USDA’s budget is spent on educational initiatives to build the number and capability of farmers across the country. San Antonio, surrounded by potential farmland and nicknamed “Military City USA,” is no different.

*Featured/top image: Cattle and farmers from Mesquite Field Farm earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Doug Havemann. 

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Texas Organic Farms, Once Torpedoed, Coming Back

San Antonio’s Veterans’ Voices: Compelling Stories

A Veteran’s Continuing Journey Back

Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.