Answering the call: Veterans choose the farm after service

Photos by Kylie Kai, communications consultant

Cody also put together an audio story of Answering the Call: Veteran Farm Tour. Click here to listen.

On May 24, the Center for Rural Affairs and Legal Aid of Nebraska partnered to host the second annual Answering the Call: Veteran Farm Tour. The tour was a follow-up to a veteran farmer conference in March and is made possible through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The tour is intended to facilitate networking, knowledge, and resource awareness of beginning farmers and ranchers who are veterans.

The tour featured three farms, beginning at Robinette Farms in Martell, Nebraska, a small-scale, commercial family-farm. Robinette Farms specializes in microgreen production, pastured laying hens, custom graze cattle, and they have a small apiary. The second stop at veteran-owned and operated Prairie Plate Restaurant on Lakehouse Farm, provided the guests with lunch. The farm-to-table restaurant offers a seasonal menu consisting of vegetables and fruit grown on Lakehouse Farm and paired with other locally-sourced products.

The final stop of the tour was the Barreras Family Farm, which is self described as being dedicated to sustainable land and animal stewardship. Certified by Homegrown by Heroes, a nationwide veteran farmer certification program, the Barreras farm is dedicated to the emulation of the seven Army values in daily farm operations and community involvement.

Funds from the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, in part, provided the opportunity for the tour. This program is funded through the current farm bill and is proposed to receive permanent funding along with the 2501 program under the 2018 Senate proposal.

Alex McKiernan, co-owner, leads a group of beginning farmers and ranchers, many of whom are veterans, on a tour of Robinette Farms in Martell, Nebraska. The first of three stops on the tour, Robinette Farms specializes in the sustainable production of microgreens. The tour was hosted on May 24 and was attended by several people.

Jared Schademann, a beginning farmer from Omaha, listens to Alex McKiernan, co-owner of Robinette Farms as he shares the process of transplanting produce from the greenhouse to outdoor beds. Robinette Farms is a diversified, commercial, family farm that sustainably produces more than 80 varieties of vegetables including kale, cabbage, spicy mustard greens, peas, and sunflower shoots, among others.

Alex McKiernan and wife, Chloe Diegel, own and operate Robinette Farms just 15 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska. The farm is a community-supported agriculture, or CSA, operation. CSA is a farming model in which consumers purchase food directly from the farmers who grow it. Robinette Farms’ website says, “You have your family doctor, your dentist, even your mechanic, shouldn’t you have your farmer too?”

A wash station for select microgreens is featured as beginning veteran farmers learn about strategies for direct marketing, a key component of Robinette Farms' business plan. Co-owners and spouses Chloe Diegel and Alex McKiernan sell their finished products directly to consumers through farm-to-table restaurants, local farmers markets, and larger regional grocery stores throughout Nebraska.

Farmer and chef duo, Renee and Jerry Cornett, welcome guests of the Answering the Call: Veteran Farm Tour to Lakehouse Farm and Prairie Plate Restaurant outside of Waverly, Nebraska. Co-owners and spouses, Renee and Jerry operate Lakehouse Farm to provide ingredients to their diner, Prairie Plate Restaurant. According to Jerry, “The Military is a way of life, much like farming is a way of life.”

Jerry and Renee Cornett reflect on their time in the U.S. Navy as helicopter pilots, the seasonal meals they experienced around the world, and their philosophy toward every vegetable they grow and serve on Lakehouse Farm. The co-owners and operators highlighted their unique farm-to-table approach as a diversified production technique to beginning veteran farmers and ranchers on the Center for Rural Affairs and Legal Aid of Nebraska’s second annual veteran farm tour.

Jerry and Renee Cornett’s Prairie Plate Restaurant, a farm-to-table restaurant, provides a unique dining experience for customers just a few feet away from where food is grown. This salad contains produce grown at Lakehouse Farm and was served to the Answering the Call: Veteran Farmer Tour guests at their lunch. Approximately 85 percent of the diner’s menu comes from Lakehouse Farm and the duo says, “Ingredients that arrive in our kitchen carry a flavor of the land that is unique, delicious and wholesome... A respect for these ingredients is a central tenet of our philosophy.”

Jerry Cornett speaks to a crowd of beginning veteran farmers and ranchers about the difference in strategy for growing vegetables in hoophouses and greenhouses. Jerry says, “We can grow 10 months out of the year pretty comfortably.” He further explains that the easy mobility of the structures allows him to more efficiently manage and care for the health of the soils on Lakehouse Farm outside Waverly, Nebraska.

The final stop of Answering the Call: Veteran Farm Tour was the Barreras Family Farm just outside of North Omaha, Nebraska. Lt. Col. Anthony Barreras (left, green shirt) and Mariel Barreras (right) speak with guests of the Answering the Call: Veteran Farmer Tour on May 24. The Barreras Family Farm provides pasture raised, antibiotic and hormone free, sustainable farm products through direct retail and wholesale customers in the Omaha and surrounding areas.

Lt. Col. Anthony Barreras speaks other beginning veteran farmers and ranchers about his family’s use of chicken tractors to keep their free-range broilers protected from predators. The Barrera’s raise antibiotic free, pasture-raised broilers on their family farm. A key aspect of their farm, according to their website, is that their products are veteran-raised and they have a mission of, “Mobilizing veterans to feed America.”

Goat kids greet visitors to the Barreras Family Farm during Answering the Call: Veteran Farmer Tour hosted by the Center for For Rural Affairs and Legal Aid of Nebraska on May 24. The Barrera’s sell raw goat milk labeled for pet consumption. Their website proudly states their milk is, “...filtered twice and flash chilled in glass containers within 20 minutes of each milking.” This is an important part of their farming operation.

Mariel Barreras speaks with guests on her family farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska, as a chicken pecks the ground near their feet. The Barreras Family Farm offers a Rent-A-Chick program that teaches families about farm life by caring for two chicks. Mariel says her family uses this program to diversify their economic portfolio and shares it with other beginning farmers and ranchers at the Answering the Call: Veteran Farmer Tour on May 24.

Additional support for the tour was provided by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, award number 2015-70017-23907; Farm Credit Services of America Working Here Fund; Nebraska Tourism Commission; and North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.

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