Farm Horizons, December 2019
Vets farming to help other vets
By Gabe Licht
Chickens roam the property at 4432 Co. Rd. 12 just outside of Montrose. Icelandic sheep, goats, and wooly Mangalitsa pigs share the property with them, as do a variety of trees and plants and, of course, owners Tom and Charriese Norris.
All together, they make up Veterans Farming Initiative.
The Norrises started VFI as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in Minnetonka in 2017, and moved the operation to its current location in August 2018.
Fittingly, Tom and Charriese are both veterans. Tom served in the Army for nearly 17 years before medically retiring. Charriese medically retired from the Army National Guard after about 13 years of service.
Neither of them grew up on a farm, with Tom hailing from Albert Lea and Charriese growing up in Golden Valley.
After retiring from the service, Tom studied zoology at Mankato State University.
“That led me to ecology, which led me to sustainable agriculture,” Tom said, adding that he initially wanted to be a veterinarian.
The couple met in 2015.
“I just kind of jumped on his bandwagon and we’re trying to save the world, right?” Charriese said with a laugh.
Now, both Tom and Charriese are pursuing bachelor’s degrees in sustainable food and farming from the University of Massachusetts.
Being in that program led the Norrises to the Montrose-area property.
“It was through a project in school last spring that I interviewed somebody in the industry,” Charriese said. “I ended up finding the owner of this property, who was trying to sell it.”
It features 25 acres that the Norrises try to utilize in a number of ways.
“One thing about our farming method is it’s all together,” Tom said. “We do rotational grazing . . . In between our fruit trees and raspberries, we rotationally graze. Everything works together. The animals mow the grass for us, eat the brush, then they fertilize everything for us.”
Tom and Charriese selected animals that thrive in Minnesota’s climate, from the sheep to the pigs.
“They’re very hearty in the cold,” Tom said of the Mangalitsas. “They do really well in the heat. Because they’re in the pasture, they have access to dig in wallows. They get to exhibit their natural behaviors. They self regulate.”
Icelandic sheep thrive in cold temperatures and only seek shelter in the most severe temperatures.
“We had a few really cold days, -30, -40. Those were about the only times they chose to sleep in the shelters. Otherwise, they were just sleeping in the pasture. You’d come out and they’d be sleeping in the snow,” Tom said.
Icelandic sheep are raised for their meat, milk, and fiber. On average, they produce two eight-pound fleeces per year. Once it is processed, it is worth about $40 per pound. Proceeds from that fiber, along with other items sold at farmers markets, are used to support the mission of the farm.
That mission is veteran-focused.
“One of our goals is to work with disabled veterans or families of disabled veterans, so we’re trying to build systems that are adaptable to any physical difficulties in doing jobs,” Tom said.
In that vein, the Norrises have applied for grant funding to purchase an egg mobile where their 200 chickens can lay their eggs.
“The egg mobile has roll-out nest boxes,” Tom said. “You crank them in and it brings the eggs right to you. Even somebody in a wheelchair or on the back of an ATV can collect the eggs instead of having to walk around inside a structure.”
Veterans will be able to learn about gardening on the farm, likely in the next growing season.
“We’re going to have a square-foot gardening program where we’ll set veterans up with a raised-bed garden, teach them how to garden, so they can raise their own food,” Tom said.
“For somebody who has a disability or is confined to a wheelchair, we can lift those up a little more,” Charriese added. “Someone in a wheelchair can go around and easily work in the garden or pick things without causing any more stress or harm to their bodies.”
That project will be in partnership with Projects in Person, which will provide the wood for the garden boxes.
A program focused on the families of veterans, likely in partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project, is on the docket for mid-summer 2020.
“We have a really big emphasis on family unity and trying to help people find what that is to them again,” Charriese said. “A lot of veterans who come back from deployments, some people can get back on track, and some are so off track that everyone in the family is suffering because the dynamics are off. We’re just uniting families to come back together or find creative ways to stay united.”
Both veterans and their families benefit from interaction with animals.
“The human brain doesn’t differentiate between a service dog and spending a day with some goats and getting interaction between an animal and a human, getting outdoors, being in fresh air, rather than closed in,” Tom said.
Not only can veterans benefit from the animals themselves, but also the meat they produce.
“Eventually, we want to be able to provide monthly boxes of meat to veterans,” Tom said. “There are a few programs in the state right now where veterans can get CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares of vegetables. As far as I know, there’s no program out there that provides meat to needy school children and veterans and their families.”
In the meantime, VFI provides 35 dozen eggs to the Wright County Community Action food shelf in Waverly on a regular basis.
The Norrises are in the planning process for many of their proposed programs.
“We’re starting to set reasonable expectations on ourselves and the organization,” Charriese said. “A lot of it comes down to funding, because we’re funding all of it right now. Once we have more established funding, it will be easier to set those expectations up . . . I think in the next two years is a reasonable objective.”
Tom and Charriese work with fellow board members, Matt Parrish and Justin Lowther, to set those priorities.