When was the last time you thanked a veteran? In New Jersey, one way you can thank them is buying fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products from a veteran farmer.
Thanks to a national program called Homegrown By Heroes (HBH), New Jersey farmers who have served in the military have the opportunity to brand their agricultural products with a label that lets consumers know a veteran produced them. The Homegrown By Heroes label was created in 2013 by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and in 2014 the program partnered with the California-based Farmer Veteran Coalition to launch it nationwide.
“The HBH label empowers farmer veterans by giving them a tool to highlight their agricultural efforts,” says Aaron Magill, Army veteran and manager of the Homegrown By Heroes label at the Farmer Veteran Coalition. “It can become a badge of honor. It gives them the ability to create their own brand and recognizes the amazing work they are able to achieve post- military service.”
So far, there are 540 certified Homegrown By Heroes member farmers nationwide, including those in New Jersey. Magill says the organization is actively recruiting members from the Garden State.
“We’d like to see many more in such an agriculturally prominent state,” he says.
Farmer veteran Matt Soldano from Ramsey, N.J., served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2002 to 2006 and was deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
“The old saying that combat is 98 percent boredom and 2 percent sheer terror is pretty accurate,” Soldano says of his time overseas. “You sit and wait a lot, and then things get scary when stuff hits the fan.”
After he got out of the Marines in 2006, he married his wife, Deanna, and was “looking for direction in life.”
“I had a purpose the last four years in the military, and I wanted something meaningful to do once I was back home,” he says.
Soldano moved to Mahwah to live on Deanna’s family’s small farm, and his father-in-law gave him a few chicks. Before long, six chickens turned into 12, and 12 turned into 36.
“I was getting a lot of eggs, so I started selling them at the farmers market. I would sell out in 20 minutes,” Soldano says. “I realized people really want homegrown food.”
Soon he started raising more chickens for meat and later added turkeys. He started Southtown Farms LLC in 2010 with the help of a $10,000 grant from the Farmer Veteran Coalition. In 2015, Soldano raised 800 laying hens, 4,000 broilers, 200 turkeys and 150 hogs.
His product line includes three varieties of bacon, 10 varieties of sausage, hot dogs, jerkies, a full line of poultry cuts, turkey parts and whole turkeys. His operation includes beef cattle as of 2016.
“Farming has been therapeutic,” Soldano says. “I suffered from post- traumatic stress disorder when I got out of the military, and on rough days, I can go outside and run around with the pigs or put my hands in the dirt. It helps you work through problems in your mind. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for farming.”
Soldano labels all his products with the Homegrown By Heroes label. He says it has attracted a lot of customers.
“Farmers market customers will find out I’m a veteran, and even if they aren’t specifically interested in what I’m selling, they’ll say, ‘I’ll buy a package of sausage from you,’ ” he says. “Then they come back the next week asking for more. They are interested in our story – who we are and what we do.”
Magill says agriculture speaks to veterans because it can be cathartic in nature.
“There is a creative process that goes into farming. Most of all, it’s the sense of purpose one gains from knowing they are doing something that matters every day,” Magill says. “Providing food for their communities and families is empowering, and what farmer veterans do makes a positive and tangible difference. It is literally trading one noble profession for another – the farmer veteran goes from protecting our country to feeding it.”