Veterans find a new purpose through farming with help of FIU program
By Audra D.S. Burch
Mat Santos stands at the edge of seven acres of land, the field of his future, pondering what to plant, grow and harvest and sell.
“Hmmm, maybe acai or some other fruits and vegetable that I can grow organically,” he says, shovel in hand, surveying the overgrown lot, once home to a fish farm and, in another life, crops of malanga and sunflowers.
This time three years ago, Santos was finishing up a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy. After deployments in Central and South America, Santos returned to civilian life in Miami, his hometown, to begin the next chapter. For months, Santos and his father scoured the southwestern unincorporated corner of Miami-Dade County looking for the perfect place to start an organic farm, with tropical vegetables and, maybe, livestock. Together, they purchased the land in January.
Now Santos, 26, is learning the world of agriculture, from the art of planting to the new technology to marketing, with the help Florida International University’s new Veterans and Small Farmers Outreach program. The idea is to give veterans, along with minority and women farmers, the opportunity to learn or expand their knowledge of the business. For veterans returning from duty, the program offers a crash course in the farming life, a way to explore a new career option.
Before Santos began his journey, he knew little about agriculture. But like the other students, he felt called to the land and work regulated not by man but by the seasons.
“I want to learn everything I can about farming and plants and livestock,” says Santos, an FIU student who grew up in Doral. “It is really hard to break into the business. I am learning working alongside the farmers who are already doing it.”
The program, with 19 students, takes a ground-level look at farming through workshops, training and paid apprenticeships. The students work at four different farms or nurseries in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to get hands-on experience. They are presented with some of the real-world, real-time problems that small farmers face in South Florida.
They also attend weekly classes and training to learn the other side: farm risk and business management and financial accounting. This month, for example, the schedule includes introduction to QuickBooks and a course on horse ownership. The students are also assisted with USDA applications for loans.
“This is a way for us to reach out to our community,” said Nina De la Rosa, program coordinator. “Our mission is to assist veterans and and nursery growers in South Florida in order to enhance the sustainability of their farm operations or help them to decide if they want to be farmers.”
The long-term goal of the project is to make sure they have the technical and entrepreneurial skills along with access to government assistance programs so that they can launch and/or sustain viable farm operations.
Most every week, when Santos isn’t working part-time in security at Miami International Airport you can find him at TreeHugger Farm, a permaculture operation in Davie where he is learning the art of planting fruit trees, weeding and mulching. On Friday, he spent the morning digging a six-inch trench to be used for irrigation on land that eventually will be used to grow kale or collards or heirloom tomatoes. The week before, he planted guava trees. For Santos, most visits to the farm offer a first-time experience.
At Possom Trot, a tropical fruit nursery in the Redland, he learned about irrigation, fertilization and composting. Next month, he will work at a chicken farm. He hopes to carry the lessons to his own land.
The program, which runs through September, was developed by FIU faculty members Mahadev Bhat and Krish Jayachandran, both in the university’s Department of Earth and Environment. Funded by a federal grant, it began in January, is a collaboration between FIU, Possum Trot, Redland Ahead, Inc., the Coalition of Florida Farmworkers Organizations and the Dade County Farm Bureau.
Marine veteran Zarron Brown is hoping the program will allow him to expand his burgeoning compost business based in his Miami Gardens home.
“I have this fascination with the process of organic matter being turned into dirt, nutritious dirt,” said Brown, 38, who was in the service for eight years. “I started the business last year to help others start their own composting system at home and within community so they recycle their food scraps and yard waste.”
So far, he has harvested tomatoes, cilantro and sugarcane; fed goats, chicken and sheep and worked at a farmer’s market selling produce during his apprenticeships. And that is just the beginning.
“I want to learn what it takes to be a farmer and to see how I can incorporate more composting into farm practices,’’ said Brown who calls himself the “Worm Whisperer.” “I also want to get enough experience to open a farm with organic fruits and vegetables. I am looking at this as my future.”