Farmer Veterans: From “Army First” to “Mother Nature Always Wins

Portage County, Wisconsin

Veterans have taken a renewed interest in agriculture in the last decade. Why is it that veterans are looking toward the agrarian lifestyle? 

I’ve experienced the impact that agriculture can provide, and while I can’t speak for all veterans, I’ve heard fellow veterans express how farming changed their lives, too. 

For one veteran, working the earth, helping things grow and nurturing something from seed to harvest provided a peaceful, calm and independent existence that saved his life. Prior to finding life on the farm, he felt lost and unanchored. Due to the many haunting thoughts that often accompany veterans returning home, he was contemplating suicide. His story is not unique. While veterans find many ways to cope with what they experience, the restorative role of agriculture cannot be understated.

For me, my time in the military prepared me for farming by making me very accustomed to not being in control. As an Arabic linguist, my first stop after Basic Training was at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. I spent 67 weeks there studying a language from what can be best described as an unforgiving firehose of information that I had to master. The attrition rate in these courses is high and our class only losing 50 percent of those who started was considered a good outcome. Of course, if one couldn’t keep up, you were either “rocked” out of the program or “rolled” back to the start of the language course or into another language altogether if they thought you had promise.

To become a trained interrogator, I attended the basic course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona after graduating at the top of my Arabic class and earning the Commandant’s Award. The interrogation world is one that involves control and the lack thereof as well. I was trained to be a strategic debriefer who usually operated at Echelons Above Corps and directly under J-2 CENTCOM, Central Command in the Middle East, when overseas and not attached to another unit. The nature of my deployments was more short-term and in support of missions that varied from providing translation, simultaneous interpretation, interviewing people of interest, serving as a liaison to foreign militaries and generally providing language support to everything from security efforts to efforts undertaken by different agencies in the area. 

My competencies in Arabic and interrogation meant that I was one of a few people who could meet unique mission requirements across the Department of Defense and the alphabet soup of agency work. In this world, your reputation precedes you. In the end, the various competencies I achieved in speaking Arabic and through different interrogation training ultimately led to a stint in the Army that I’ll just say was exciting, high-pressure, and atypical. 

In some ways, the hierarchy and priorities of the military mirror that of farming life, only in this case it is not “Army First” but “Mother Nature always wins.” Agriculture can be frustrating and sometimes demoralizing, and some might mistake it for bordering on fatalism, but what this mentality highlights is that we have a choice on how we react to the challenges confronting us. In the military, the clarity and focus of the mission helps orient the individual and the team. Similarly, the built-in flexibility of local command authority makes the U.S. military a more formidable and often unpredictable force.

I, like those who sacrifice years of their lives in the forge of military service, internalized those lessons and deeply appreciated what one can learn from a series of small victories as well as from failure. On the farm, Mother Nature—like the Five-Sided Puzzle Palace (i.e., The Pentagon)—is dictating the terms of one’s engagement. Rolling with the punches and finding a way to thrive in situations that often deteriorate, despite my expertise and skill, is common to both the military and agriculture. Seasoned veterans in either field would likely argue that this mindset is a pre-requisite for any attempt at success. As the saying goes, you must adapt and overcome.

After leaving the military, I started the Arabic language program at the University of Oregon, which grew to include over 300 students. The program included basic Arabic as well as advanced courses that addressed a broader political, cultural and linguistic understanding of the people and cultures where Arabic plays a prominent role in everyday life. My expertise in Arabic was highly valued after 9/11 and I found myself volunteering for the FBI and others as I still had a Top Secret-SCI clearance and needed skillset. 

In the years that followed, my Arabic skills became slightly less valued in the academic world, where I had been thriving. I considered a doctorate program, the natural next step in my career, but the promises of more pay and respect were not guaranteed.

So, when the opportunity to start a farm in Wisconsin presented itself, my military experience and how it had helped me grow as an individual made the choice a simple one: I adapted and overcame. My grandparents immigrated from Ireland to get away from a more agrarian life and to provide our family with more opportunity, but I didn’t view my choice as a step back. Rather, farming was a chance to explore another career, to learn new things and to enrich my life through another adventure. In a way, I was joining the Army again. Only this time, it was on my terms.

For many years, I farmed during the growing months—April through November—and taught as a mercenary lecturer in the off season. Our farm has changed over time, but our emphasis has always been on a operating a diversified pasture-based livestock farm. We made our mark in poultry at first, raising thousands for direct and wholesale markets. Over time we’ve expanded to include beef, hogs and sheep. We also grow produce and have many perennial crops that require a lot of up-front work but make it easy to meet demand for an operation that’s run primarily by my wife and me. 

I think that cultivating a life in agriculture is attractive to veterans because it’s one of the few areas where a civilian life can get close to living on the edge of control. There is also still a strong sense of community among farmers—despite our differences—and that is something that many feel we lose when leaving the military. Furthermore, the structures and expectations of normal life are blurred on the farm, like they often are in the military, because you’re so aware of your position in the grander scheme while feeling somewhat disassociated from it. Yes, you are part of the food production system at some level, but even more so, you are directly interacting with the world around you in a way that most people—at least in the U.S.—never do.

We must be cautious about romanticizing a life in agriculture. It’s not an easy life and that is part of what pushes people away—including why my grandparents left Ireland. That said, it is a life that can be as invigorating as it is scary. And for many veterans, it’s a very effective bridge back into civilian life.

Chris Holman: Farmer and County Executive for Portage County, Wisconsin

Chris Holman: Farmer and County Executive for Portage County, Wisconsin

Chris Holman has operated a diversified, pasture-based livestock farm in Central Wisconsin with his wife, Maria, and their two children since 2010. He served in the U.S. Army from 1996-2001 as an Arabic Linguist and Interrogator, and he is a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He is an active member in the Farmer Veteran Coalition, served on USDA’s Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, and has also presented at the White House on the issues facing mid-size farms and farmers, including veteran farmers. In addition to farming, he stepped back into public service in 2018 when he was elected as the Portage County Executive.

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