Farmer-veteran Robert Elliot speaks from the heart at RAFI


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Farmer-veteran Robert Elliot of Cypress Hall Farms addresses a group at RAFI’s office.

Below is a speech by Robert Elliot, a farmer-veteran and owner of Cypress Hall Farms in Louisburg, North Carolina.

Robert visited RAFI yesterday and spoke eloquently about the experience of being a veteran and building his own farm enterprise in North Carolina. The strategic planning session on serving farmer-veterans in North Carolina was conducted at RAFI’s office yesterday, followed by a farm tour today (including at Robert’s farm). We are vey grateful to the other organizations who were part of the discussion, including the Farmer Veteran Coalition, NC Farm Bureau, Farm Credit, the USDA Farm Service Agency, and NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, NC AgrAbility, and the NC Agromedicine Institute.

On the Cypress Hall Farms Facebook page, Robert’s family writes: We had a great day at RAFI today. Robert gave his speech and all went well. People in NC are beginning to get on board with the idea of veterans becoming farmers. We have even been asked to be a part of all farmer veteran discussions in the future. We are proud to be included in the shaping of so many great things to come. For anyone interested, Robert’s speech is as follows:

Hello everyone. My name is Robert Elliott, and I run Cypress Hall Farms.

Our farm has been pretty conventional over the last 60 years until I decided that it was time for me to become a farmer. Since that day, I haven’t had a question about what I should be doing with my life. Today, I am a farmer veteran. I provide pasture raised meats directly to consumers and my business is constantly growing. I also volunteer my time by working with Kavita Koppa with the Farmer-Veteran Network, and I heavily support Wounded Warrior Project by hosting hunting activities several times a year for vets in that program.

I’m a US Marine who served 5 years active duty in many places of the world. I was also a contractor for the Marine Corps for 10 years at Cherry Point NC until government cuts caused the loss of many jobs (one of them being mine). In 2011 I found myself laid off with no job prospects and nothing left to do but move home into my family’s plantation house that was previously occupied by the great men and women of my family for two centuries. While I served my country, my aunt built an empire in the meat goat industry. She had over 1000 meat goats roaming our land when a long battle with breast cancer ensued. Eventually all of the livestock, equipment, and some of the land was sold. Still today the majority of our land is leased out. My family knows what it’s like to lose everything. They have even gone as far as trying to talk me out of farming when I returned home because they don’t want to see me endure the same hardships they have seen.

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I never thought that I would be a farmer. I chose the Marine Corps over farming because I thought it would be easier. In some ways it was. Today, I still don’t consider myself much of a farmer. To me, a farmer has massive tractors, tons of equipment, and a beautiful home with many employees. It has mainly been my wife and I working without any equipment other than some hand tools and a very used, abused, and borrowed 970 John Deere tractor at times. The biggest thing I’ve learned in farming so far is that I can build something out of almost nothing. Piece by piece and dollar by dollar, I’ve built a good start to a business that I hope to see prosper over the next few years. Being a veteran, I don’t mind putting in the manual labor required to farm sustainably.

What I want to talk about today is the needs of veterans based on my own experiences. Please bear in mind that these are merely my own opinions and suggestions about things. I’ve provided you with a sheet of suggestions that you may find useful in your journey to help the men and women who have given so much to this country and are choosing to do so once again as farmers. I highly encourage you all to ask other veterans what they need if you ever get the chance. Being that most of you here may not be veterans, please let me paint a picture in your mind.

If you could, imagine yourself at 18 years old where you have three options. 1. You can go to college if your family or student assistance can make it affordable. 2. You can try your hand at looking for a job around home. Or 3. You could join the military. I know all of you in this room come from different backgrounds, so picture this… You join the military coming out of a home that is or isn’t one of agriculture. The military disciplines you and turns you into a new human being capable of taking care of anything that ever comes in front of you. You can move mountains with the motivation and discipline that the military has instilled in you. This is what you are like coming out of basic training or boot camp as we like to call it. You’re then transferred to a school to learn your job in the military. Whether it’s being an infantryman or a desk clerk, you learn. You’re then transferred to your first duty station where you perform that job. You may go to war, you may fight, you may be wounded mentally or physically, and you may die for something that you may not even fully comprehend, but this is what you signed up for. You may serve your entire enlistment here in the US where you never see any aspect of combat. All kinds of veterans come from all kinds of scenarios in service, but the basic military man or woman is built regardless of their service experience.

In the military everything is taken care of for you. Your pay, your food, your housing is all part of that experience. If you need help with a loan, insurance, veteran issues, housing, child care, health care, etc. there is someone in the military on almost every base doing a job that will help you with exactly that. There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. For any problem, question, or concern, you can find an answer. You are frequently required to go through credit and financial counseling that instructs you on the matters of finance. One on one counseling sessions help you to understand how to carefully budget your money and spend it wisely, and how to save some money in the event that something should ever come up. Remember that even though you are very disciplined, you are still a kid in many aspects, so spending wisely isn’t a very strong suit for you at this point.

After a few quick years, you’re done with your enlistment. You can either sign up for another tour or get out of the service altogether. Now let’s think about what happens when you get out. You get a class that teaches you how to deal with the VA, how to write your resume and tailor it to what exactly you did in the military and how to apply that in the civilian world and look for jobs. You finish your check out process. Finally, you get a thank you and a bus ticket home if needed. From there, you’re a veteran with a million directions to go. College, unemployment, or a job usually happens from here. Some get out and have plenty of options or have their next life ready to go. However, it seems that today most get out and are still trying to figure out where they’re going to go being that there isn’t a multitude of jobs specific to veterans and their specialized skills like there was when I got out of the Marine Corps.

Some veterans get out and have some issues from wartime. Some are disabled and some even have mental issues from experiences they’ve encountered. Most of us will encounter some kind of difficulty when transitioning back into civilian life simply because we are so used to the military lifestyle and the differences that life holds. Many of these men and women are starting to find serenity on the farm. Farming is therapeutic to a lot of us. Some of us simply can’t relate to the civilian world anymore which makes a farm a wonderful place for us. I could even see farming being a way to end the homeless and jobless veteran problem in this country.

When I eventually moved home, I finished up an Associate’s Degree in Science and transferred to NCSU. I was studying for my Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering degree when I really started thinking about where I was going to be a few years from now. I really couldn’t see myself in a cubicle in a building somewhere drafting up god knows what for god knows who. While I was in college, we had bought some chickens and some books on raising them, one of them being Pastured Poultry Profit$ by Joel Salatin. While I was reading this book it dawned on me that, “Hey! I can do this. This can’t be that hard.” Well for the most part it hasn’t been. But in some ways it has.

Farmer-veteran Robert Elliot of Cypress Hall Farms addresses a group at RAFI's office.

Farmer-veteran Robert Elliot of Cypress Hall Farms addresses a group at RAFI’s office.

I remember at the end of my first semester at State thinking about that book and wondering where it could take me. Certainly I didn’t think it would bring me here today speaking about veterans and farming. I definitely didn’t realize that it was going to lead me into a farm life providing many quality meats to people all while causing an obsession to take our farm further. With almost zero knowledge of farming, I left college and took to the field.

I’m very fortunate in the fact that my family has land for me to work on. Most people wanting to get into farming don’t have that luxury. Even fewer veterans do. I can’t imagine the hurdle that this challenge alone would pose. Many of you have heard that the median age of farmers today is 65. Many of these farmers don’t have someone to pass their farms to and I believe that this is a problem in America today. The farms of America are diminishing more and more. Before being asked to speak here today, the biggest question I had in all of my farmer veteran work was how to link veterans to older, retiring farmers. How do we find the great men and women who don’t have someone to pass the farms to? When I started writing what I wanted to discuss with you folks, it dawned on me! FARM BUREAU AND FARM CREDIT KNOWS WHO THEY ARE!!! You are the missing link that can bring this all together. We’ll get the veterans, you get the farmers and we will all meet in the middle to make the US the greatest agricultural country in the world for many years to come.

Who’s going to tackle the farms of tomorrow? That’s easy. Veterans. We’re perfect for it. We’re already adapted to the climate and the outdoors. We get up early. We have a work ethic that ensures that we will work until the job is done (something that is seriously missing in many other young people today). We may not know how. We may not know where to start. We don’t know how to fund that operation. Hell, most of us don’t even know what a tractor does. But if you ask the majority of my brothers and sisters to do something, by god they will get it done one way or another. That’s what makes us unique, and that’s where you folks come in.

When I decided to start farming, I went and saw Martha Mobley, my county Cooperative Extension Agent. Without her, I would still be trying to figure it all out. People like Martha make getting into farming possible with their extensive knowledge of who knows what, who funds what, what should I be doing, what are the trends, and where can I get the things I need to start this enterprise. With people like her, the folks at RAFI, CFSA, and other organizations geared toward farming all teamed up with veterans, the sky is the limit for agriculture in the US.

Since I’ve been farming, my business has been growing. Eggs and chicken paid for turkeys and pigs who paid for rabbits, ducks, and now mushrooms. Hopefully all of these things will start to pay for lamb and cattle in some time. The biggest difficulty I’ve had in all of my endeavors has been the almighty dollar that is so desperately needed for barn repairs, equipment purchases, livestock purchases, feed purchases, new fences, new trucks… The list could go on forever. For every dollar made to this day, we’ve probably spent two trying to get things going. I’ve sold everything that I’ve had to pay for all of the start-up costs and there still wasn’t enough money. I chose to start small and grow slow without the assistance of loans. The RAFI grant that I received is doing a tremendous amount of good for my business by providing me with all new and improved equipment and even a shelter for us to process chickens, turkeys, and ducks.

I really couldn’t imagine trying to do conventional farming today without the assistance of loans, grants, and cost shares. To a veteran without land, there would have to be a lot of help coming into the farming scene today and I hope to see our country take a kind view toward veterans taking to the field and do everything we can to help them do that.

The rest of my difficulties lay solely with the operations related to being a farmer. Growing up on a farm only gave me basic knowledge of general farming related equipment and procedures. In the military there are standard operating procedures and manuals for everything that you could ever encounter. In farming, there isn’t a manual for pretty much anything besides new tractors. The majority of what I know today is thanks to many days and nights of research that my wife and I have been through. From what I’ve noticed though, books and articles will only take you half of the way. Everything else is learned through practical experience by getting out there and doing the work. A farming mentor could be a huge benefit to anyone wanting to come into this business. I believe that internships where farmers train new farmers in all of the aspects of their operation would be detrimental to keeping our farms alive. New farmer veterans get all of the experience they are going to need while the older, wiser farmers get some of the best farm help they could ever ask for, and possibly, someone to take over the farm when the time comes to lease, sell, or give the farms to the next generations.

With the growth of the local food industry and the interest in agriculture alone in NC, more veteran minded organizations will definitely emerge. The Farmer-Veteran Network has been born here and will flourish as the word spreads about us. Veterans tend to stick together, and once a network has been established, we will connect with it. Something taught to us in the military is, “take care of your own.” Many continue to do that today.

I’ve met many people in the past couple of years as a farmer-veteran-foodie-salesman-advocate-producer-buyer-seller-etc that talk the talk, but when it comes time to put the work in, they’re not there. Just as many people coming into this business are getting out because the pay doesn’t meet the work. We lack the people needed to continue agriculture and revitalize the entire system. Veterans fill that void. We don’t mind putting in the long hours and doing whatever we have to do to make things work. We can accomplish anything if we’re given the tools and support we need. Not many other demographic groups of people can claim that. With that said, I thank you all for inviting me here today, and I encourage you to ask a veteran what you can do to help the men and women who are serving our country for a second time as farmers.