Farmer veterans

Farmer veteran Rex Barnhill checks on his crops growing in a high hoop greenhouse.

After moving his family 17 times in a 28-year military career, Bob Barnhill settled on a farm in the sandhills of rural Lonoke in 1980, a 30-minute drive from Little Rock. There, he, his wife Carlotta and their son Rex started a fruit and vegetable farm from scratch with the backing of the work ethic and skills the U.S. Air Force instilled in him.

Last year, the Homegrown by Heroes program recognized both Bob and Rex, a 31-year Army veteran who served two combat tours in Iraq. The Arkansas Agriculture Department brought this national program to the state to help farmer veterans differentiate and market their food products.

“It’s a good program that recognizes and rewards military service through agricultural support of young farmer veterans in Arkansas communities,” Bob says.

A top-producing vegetable supplier in the area, Barnhill Orchards represents a farmer veteran success story that agricultural leaders seek to duplicate. As a result, many national and regional programs have developed to help veterans-turned-farmers. Homegrown by Heroes, Patriot Project, Armed to Farm and various funding assistance programs serve to foster farm success for the men and women who defended their country and now feed it, too.

“The agriculture industry requires many of the same attributes as military service – a strong work ethic, ability to work under less than ideal conditions, and being mission oriented. It’s a natural fit for veterans and service members looking to find additional ways to serve,” says Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward, who has served 16 years in the Marine Corps. “It’s a natural fit for veterans, who are also driven by serving and protecting.”

farmer veterans

Veteran Bob Barnhill started Barnhill Orchards in the 1980s. In the three decades since, the veteran has built the business working with his wife, daughter and son.

Invigorating Rural Areas

Nationwide, more veterans live in rural areas than urban or suburban parts of America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Veterans programs formed to help service members return to their rural roots and access the tools for success. The Farm Bureau Patriot Project connects beginning farmer veterans with experienced farming mentors. The Farmer Veteran Coalition’s Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund offers grants to help veterans in their early years of farming or ranching. Beginning farmer veterans can access loan programs specific to beginning farmers through Farm Credit and the USDA Farm Service Agency.

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Armed to Farm provides training to veterans interested in organic production practices or who need help with information on government conservation programs and niche markets. AgrAbility can improve the quality of life for farmer veterans with disabilities.

“Homegrown by Heroes reminds the public that veteran farmers have served our country,” Ward says. “It allows consumers to single out their products as a way to honor their service and purchase locally grown food, both of which are a win for agriculture.”

In the Barnhill family, the military tradition spans generations. Each of Bob’s five children and three grandsons served in the military, as have each of his brothers and several brothers-in-law. Combined, these family members register around 160 years of military service.

Committed to Growth

Just as the family’s military commitment grows, so does the generational interest in the farm. Barnhill Orchards recently has expanded to accommodate the family’s next generation of farmer veterans who have served and now see their future on the family farm.

The Homegrown by Heroes program appropriately fits Barnhill Orchards as an additional marketing tool for their fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts. The program’s logo, which farmer veterans may display on or near their products, marries the Arkansas Grown label with a patriotic Homegrown by Heroes symbol.

Bob embraces the Homegrown by Heroes program but comments on the “heroes” portion of its catchy name.

“I am honored to be recognized for my service,” Bob says. “I am not really a hero; I just served my country.”