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For women veterans, farming offers a promising future

Issue Date: November 7, 2012
By Kate Campbell
Beginning farmer and veteran Vonita Murray, on her Yolo County farm, plants her hopes on a future in farming. A single mother, she says growing food and being available for her 8-year-old daughter gives her focus and a purpose, a reminder she has tattooed on her forearm.
Photos/Kate Campbell

Photos/Kate Campbell
A single mother, Vonita Murray says growing food and being available for her 8-year-old daughter gives her focus and a purpose, a reminder she has tattooed on her forearm.
Photos/Kate Campbell
Beginning farmer and veteran Vonita Murray in her Navy uniform.

Photos/Kate Campbell

Photos/Kate Campbell
Learning to drive a tractor is one of the new skills Vonita Murray, founder of Mariposa Valley Farm, has learned since her disability discharge from the Navy. With help from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, she also has learned about business plans, where to buy the best seeds for crops and how to build a customer base.
Photo/Kate Campbell

Nestled between orchards and hay fields on the outskirts of Woodland, Mariposa Valley Farm forms an island of diversity, both because of the array of specialty crops being grown there and because of the farmer who grows them.

Vonita Murray, a disabled U.S. Navy veteran, is among the growing number of women stepping up to run American farming operations. And groups like the Davis-based Farmer Veteran Coalition are helping vets—male and female—find the technical and financial resources they need, plus the emotional support to get the job done.

Injured during training, Murray was discharged from the Navy with a permanent disability. She learned computer-aided design programs and worked for an architectural firm, but said she always wanted to work outdoors.

"Looking back, getting laid off in 2009 was the best thing that could have happened," Murray said. "I had a chance to figure out what I really want to do."

She got started growing food crops by offering edible landscaping services, she said.

"I'd go in and plant vegetable gardens in people's yards," she explained. "I liked the work, but taking care of 15 separate gardens was hard. I had to drive to all the gardens and grow under a variety of conditions. It became clear growing food in that format wouldn't work."

Murray decided to grow market vegetables on her own. She leased about four acres of land from a friend. It has class 4 soil, which she says isn't the best, and no electricity. The old domestic well on the property only produces nine gallons of water a minute. The hand-me-down tractor can be temperamental.

In spite of these challenges, Murray has been able to grow and market a variety of heirloom vegetables and sell them to local customers, at farmers markets and to Sacramento restaurant kitchens.

Her long-term vision is to grow vegetables year-round in greenhouses, along with producing heirloom vegetables outdoors. She also keeps chickens for eggs and would like to add goats to her livestock mix, along with a large growing area for cut flowers, a project she plans to work on with her 8-year-old daughter.

"There are many issues facing military families—they're parents, farmers, veterans—and it's especially challenging for our single mothers," said Tia Christopher, Farmer Veteran Coalition chief of staff. "One of the reasons these mothers choose farming as a profession and lifestyle is that it helps make being a single mom possible by providing a healthy way to work at home and raise their kids."

The coalition describes its mission as to help mobilize the food and farming community to create healthy and viable futures for veterans. The organization, founded by farmers and food business leaders, works closely with state and federal agencies to link veterans who enter farming to resources and funding programs.

About 19 percent of the veteran farmers who receive business startup grants from the Farmer Veteran Coalition are women. They're starting farms across the United States or going into agriculture-related occupations, and many of them are disabled.

At Mariposa Valley Farm last week, the last of Murray's heirloom pepper crop—black Hungarian peppers, a purple jalapeño-type variety, and yellow stuffing peppers—was ready for one last harvest. Next, Murray said she'll catch up with chores and start new projects to ready the farm for spring planting. One of those projects will be refining her farm business plan, developed while attending the nine-month California Farm Academy, a training program and farm business incubator offered though the Center for Land-Based Learning in Solano County.

The center was founded by farmer Craig McNamara, owner of Sierra Orchards in Winters, who also is president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture.

The center is helping veterans such as Murray join the growing number of American women entering agricultural occupations. Of the 3.3 million U.S. farm operators counted in the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, 30.2 percent—or more than 1 million farmers—were women.

More than 100 female veterans from around the country participated in a conference entitled "Empowering Women Veterans: Business, Agriculture & Well-being" organized by the Farmer Veteran Coalition and held last spring at the University of California, Davis. The event was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency and Annie's Project, an educational program based at the University of Iowa that's dedicated to strengthening women's roles in modern farm enterprises.

Conference organizers and attendees discussed solutions to the increasingly high unemployment rates veterans face and to the rising number of homeless female veterans.

"Self-employment is an increasingly viable option in the current economy and we find that many vets want to return to the small towns and rural areas where they grew up," Christopher said.

But this year has been especially hard for beginning farmers, she said. Drought in the Midwest, flooding and hurricanes have made farm startups challenging ventures. Added to that is the uncertainty of funding for USDA programs designed to support beginning farmers through the yet-to-be approved farm bill.

"More than anything, I want my farm to be a sanctuary," Murray said. "There's scientific proof putting your hands in the soil can calm and heal you. I haven't figured out how to do all the things in my business plan, but I know when I'm on the farm I feel great."

Information about the Farmer Veteran Coalition is available at www.farmvetco.org or 530-756-1395.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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