When Joseph Fields deployed to Iraq for the third time with the Kentucky Army National Guard in 2008, he and his wife, Heather, had big plans for their recently purchased 7-acre farm just outside Berea.
Growing up in Barbourville on a small "hobby farm," Joseph, now 35, knew something about growing vegetables, about beekeeping, about what it would take to get the enterprise off the ground while he worked an outside job in corrections or security.
What the Fieldses didn't plan on was a career-ending back injury that kept Joseph from working for months after he came back to Kentucky in February 2009. That created a serious financial setback.
"It's taken us 41/2 years to get to where it is now," Heather Fields said of the farm. They have focused on organic farming, with game chickens, hair sheep and miniature donkeys to guard them from coyotes.
Last year, she and Joseph decided to sell flower baskets at the Berea farmers market. But they had to wait until it warmed up to plant their impatiens and petunias; the baskets weren't ready until later in the season, long after people start looking for something to spruce up the porch.
Next year, things will be different. The Fieldses' farm will be the pilot project designed to nurture veterans with an interest in farming.
The program, Growing Warriors -- headed by Michael Lewis and Mark Walden with backing from Grow Appalachia, Appalachia Science in the Public Interest, Community Farm Alliance and the Farmer Veteran Coalition -- will build them a greenhouse so they can plant earlier and get flowers to the market at the start of the season.
With a $30,000 grant, Lewis and Walden also will be able to work with a dozen other veteran families who want to learn the basics of how to grow their own food at an organic community garden at the Veterans Administration clinic in Berea.
Those veterans already are asking how they can break into small-scale farming and get their fruits and vegetables to market, Lewis said.
Joseph and Heather Fields also are looking ahead to planting "you-pick" fruits and vegetables for the summer and putting up a roadside stand along a busy commuter route.
"We can't compete with growers in Mexico, but we can get it to people a lot cheaper and put something back into the local economy," Joseph Fields said.
Resonating with veterans
That is something the burgeoning veteran farmer movement is keen on nationally. This is a population big on self-reliance.
Where they need help is with understanding how to run a small business.
"The business component is the most scary part," Joseph Fields said. "I've always worked for the state and federal government."
Lewis and other farmer vets from around the country have worked to get USDA recognition of disabled veterans as a "socially disadvantaged group" so they can qualify for micro loans at better interest rates.
Now a whole support system, including educational components on farm-business planning from the University of Kentucky, is starting to come together.
"Our goal is to make sure they are successful," Lewis said. "Seven or eight years ago, I thought, 'I'm going to be a farmer,' and I've learned so many things in the last few years that I never saw coming."
Efforts to improve local economies and give families sustainable food options also resonate with veterans. More than 60 percent of the active-duty military come from small-town, rural backgrounds, Lewis said.
"We're doing so much nation-building overseas," Lewis said. Now he and other vets want to do some at home. "The veterans really get this. It's about getting these guys nation-building for real, on the ground here."
Said Fields: "I think nobody's going to argue with anybody that we have the greatest military in the world, with strong values and a work ethic. A lot of that's from our rural roots. If we can harness that power, ... I think that will be just unstoppable."
Walden, of Growing Warriors, said veterans can't turn off that "service" impulse.