November 11, 2020|By Eric Wuestewald| Food and Farms

Helping Veterans Transition Into Agriculture

“Once I injured my back, I started researching other options. I knew I wanted to do something where I could still contribute to our community and help other people.”
- Steve Prince


America needs more farmers. The need is far outpacing the number of new farmers looking to get started, and available, undeveloped farmland is quickly disappearing. Ensuring a succession plan is essential to securing our country’s farming future, a healthy, local food supply and sustainable land use.

Enter SAVE Farm. SAVE stands for Servicemember Agricultural Vocation Education, and it was established in 2015 in part to fill these gaps by offering agribusiness training for veterans and service members transitioning to civilian life. SAVE’s farming program offers students an opportunity to learn agriculture firsthand and combines on-the-ground experience with classroom topics on agricultural science, wildlife management and more. They place a special emphasis on removing barriers for people with disabilities and work closely with partners to provide counseling and support services for those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. They even assist with placement for students who complete their training.

SAVE Farm operates in Kansas near the U.S. Army Fort Riley military installation and Kansas State University. In early 2020, The Conservation Fund, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, provided SAVE with low-cost loans to purchase the 308-acre farm near Riley, Kansas they had been leasing and using as one of their three primary teaching locations.

We spoke to one of SAVE’s students, Steve Prince, a former Army medical evacuation (medevac) pilot turned goat farmer, about his life, his experiences at SAVE Farm, and his farming goals.


What made you want to join the military?

Steve Prince: I'd always wanted to be a pilot when I was growing up, but it's so cost-prohibitive. My family didn't have a lot of money and it was one of those dreams I never really pursued. My wife ended up joining the army and was stationed out here at Fort Riley. Then I met a bunch of pilots and they talked to me about the Army flight program and I joined so I could be a Black Hawk pilot.

 11 11 20 IMAG1030Photo courtesy Steve Prince.

 
What was your time in the Army like?

Steve: It had its ups and downs like everything else. I served just shy of nine years before they medically retired me due to a back injury. I was deployed twice out of Fort Riley, KS. For both deployments I flew as an aeromedical evacuation pilot for Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment. It was very rewarding as I had the opportunity to help save dozens of lives. There was one mission that I remember distinctly. We picked up an Afghan infant who had been hit by an IED and flew him to one of our hospitals to get that kid the best treatment we could get for his head trauma. We had to fly low and fast to get him there as quickly as possible. I flew that mission with a phenomenal pilot, CW3 Taylor Galvin, who sadly died in action in 2018. He was one of the best guys that I served with.

11 11 20 Team DahlkeTeam Dahlke. Photo courtesy Steve Prince.

 

What was your plan after you retired from the Army? What got you interested in farming and agri-business?

Steve: Originally I had planned on becoming a civilian medevac pilot after the Army. Once I injured my back, I started researching other options. I knew I wanted to do something where I could still contribute to our community and help other people.

I grew up in Northern California and never really enjoyed city life. I never really found the crowded hustle-and-bustle of being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic appealing. Kansas really spoke me—the wide-open spaces, the clean air, the agricultural land, just how green and lush it is. My wife and I had always talked about having our own homestead where we would have our own animals.

One day I saw a friend’s Facebook post about SAVE Farm, so I called him and we talked quite a bit about the program. He put me in touch with Gary LaGrange (the program founder and then CEO), who told me even more about the program and the enrollment process. After discussing it with my family, we decided to jump into this new venture.


What kind of instruction have you received through the SAVE Farm program?

Steve: I really hadn’t had any agriculture experience before starting at SAVE, so every day is a learning experience. Our farm instructors and farm manager give us hands-on instruction on the farm. We’re learning how to manage cattle. We talk about things like rotational grazing and proper land management and things like that all the time.

 11 11 20 20200616 103622SAVE Farm instructor Alan Hubbard explaining to student Steve Prince how to properly plant hazelnut trees. Photo courtesy SAVE Farm.

We're working with Dr. Chuck Marr from Kansas State University on how to grow things. He’ll come out and give us advice on our tomatoes and talk about proper germinating temperature and different ways of propping up the vines. We’ve got tomatoes, peppers, beets, onions, broccoli, and sileage corn. When we plant, we have opportunities to operate the tractor and other equipment.

Bees have always interested me since I was a little kid. So I’ve put on the bee suit and gone out with them to learn how to check hives too. We also have business management classes. One of the big things they like to touch on is opportunity cost and making the most efficient management decisions. It’s very holistic. We talk a lot about getting away from more traditional farm practices and getting back to doing what's more sustainable.


What’s next for you?

Steve: I’m very excited to say that I just recently acquired 40 acres near Alta Vista, Kansas to start my own farm—Prince Family Farms—focused on breeding high quality Boer goats for show and for meat. We have registered Nigerian Dwarf goats too!

11 11 20 Screen Shot 2020 11 08 at 3.27.06 PMBoer goats at Prince Family Farms. Photo courtesy Steve Prince.

There's actually a huge gap in the market for goat supply in the United States, as most are imported rather than raised here in the United States. I had been keeping my herd of 15 goats on SAVE’s land until this point. In addition to the goats, we also currently have Muscovy ducks and Golden Comet chickens.

11 11 20 104695620 1608458019309161 9189569294416839916 oPearl is the goat that started it all. She loves cuddles and is a complete sweetheart. Photo courtesy Steve Prince.

On our farm, we have 20 acres that were recently harvested for soybeans. We just received our shipment of cover seed and are getting ready to no-till drill in a mix of cereal rye, winter peas, and hairy vetch. We’re getting a really late start, but planting this will provide some grazing for our animals, reduce our hay costs, and increase our soil health.

The plan is to eventually use our southern pasture, which is all native grass, in the summer. Our central pasture will be planted in cool season grasses next fall to be used in the winters. Finally, our northern pasture will be planted in annuals each year to be used during the transitional periods. Each pasture will be rotationally grazed with the goals of being as regenerative as possible, which in turn will both lower our feed costs and should allow the land to support more animals.

11 11 20 107027330 1623194387835524 3912510970606910913 o11 11 20 107701398 1631740870314209 3913931463236563255 o Dear Steve, while you figure out the pasture situation, we’ll just eat your sunglasses. Love, Your Goats. Photos courtesy Steve Prince

I will be finished with my SAVE Farm program at the end of 2020. I think SAVE is a really great program for people who want to get into agriculture, and I’d like to see it grow. It can teach people to be more regenerative farmers, and I think that’s the direction agriculture needs to go.


The Conservation Fund wishes our soldiers, both past and present, a happy Veterans Day. We owe you our thanks, but more than that, we owe you our freedom.


SAVE Farm was established in 2015 as a pathway to farming for veterans and servicemembers by providing agricultural training and medical assistance to men and women transitioning from the military to civilian life. SAVE had been leasing their 308-acre farm for many years, and when the opportunity to purchase the property presented itself The Conservation Fund and The Nature Conservancy stepped up to provide low-cost loans for the acquisition.

Find out more:
Veteran-Led Nonprofit Secures Farmland for Therapy and Education in Kansas