After almost nine years in the Army, Zach Morris wanted to return home to Cass County, Indiana — about 40 miles north of Indianapolis — to start a farm. The problem was that he had no practical experience in agriculture and didn’t quite know how to get started.
Support from Purdue Extension’s Indiana Beginning Farmer program helped Morris and his mother, Melanie Shepherd, launch Freebird Farm & Homestead in Walton.
“They actually reached out to me,” Morris said. “They came out to the farm and I just started staying in touch.”
The Indiana Beginning Farmer program was established in 2015 with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide education, training, and networking opportunities to anyone seeking a new career in agriculture, especially military veterans like Morris.
Cindy Chastain, farmer veteran coordinator for the National AgrAbility Project based at Purdue, says the Beginning Farmer program can be especially helpful to veterans seeking to reintegrate into civilian life.
“There is a therapeutic value to agriculture in nurturing the soil and helping things grow,” she says. “Our goal is make veterans and anyone else interested in starting a farm aware of the support services that are available to them.”
Many veterans choose agriculture as a new career because the farming lifestyle is similar to the military, Morris says.
“It is very duty-driven,” he says. “You work until the job is done. I think a lot of veterans miss that sense of purpose in civilian life.”
Each year, the Beginning Farmer program hosts a number of farm tours and workshops throughout the state designed to guide and support participants through the crucial first steps of starting an agribusiness. Many of the farm operators who have opened their facilities to visitors are new or beginning farmers themselves, and several of them have been veterans.
Morris says it was especially helpful to meet others whose experiences have been similar to his own.
“I don’t know of any other program like this,” he says. “When you see someone who is just starting out like you are and making it, you start to think that ‘I can do this, too.’”
Morris remains active with the Indiana Beginning Farmer program as he and his wife, Haley, embark on an ambitious new undertaking: Next Mission Farm & Homestead in northwest Howard County, where they produce pasture-raised livestock and operate a diversified market garden.
He says the goal of the new venture is change how people think about their food.
“We’re trying to foster that consumer-farmer relationship,” he says. “We want to encourage educated consumers, showing them not only where their food comes from but also how to grow it themselves.”