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Military families at VFI, Montrose, Minn.

Cutline: Veterans involved in farming include: (L-R) John Lowther, VFI Board of Directors; Charriese Norris, VFI Vice-Chairman; Tom Norris, VFI Chairman; Alex Schueller, Veterans and Military Outreach Director for Sen. Tina Smith; Matthew Keesling, Veterans’ Liaison Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship; Veteran Shelly Woods. Photo by Andrea Johnson at the Norris farm near Montrose, Minn.

MONTROSE, Minn. – If you want to remember what first drew you to farming, take a visit to the farm of veterans Tom and Charriese Norris.

The couple, after serving the United States in Afghanistan and the Middle East, has purchased 25 acres of valuable farmland on the city limits of Montrose, Minn., in Wright County.

Their farm focuses on maintaining a sustainable balance of feeding the earth, plants, livestock, nature and people.

They work hard plus use a variety of revenue streams for financial success. Although farming is new to them, they are already teaching and sharing their vision with other veterans, families and individuals. Recently, they hosted a Land Stewardship Project farm tour plus a Veteran’s Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship meeting.

At their non-profit farm, named Veterans Farming Initiative, or VFI, Tom is chairman of the board and CEO. He also runs the day-to-day operations of the farm. Charriese is vice-chairman and marketing director.

Two additional board members include Justin Lowther, who served as a Marine and also in the Army National Guard. Lowther is a combat veteran. Matthew Parrish is the final board member and is a medically-retired Sergeant Major and worked as an Airborne Infantry Soldier.

Tom is originally from Albert Lea, Minn., and Charriese is from Golden Valley, Minn.

“We were born and bred in Minnesota, lived here my whole life, so did Charriese,” said Tom.

“We spent a couple of years here and there somewhere else,” added Charriese, with a laugh.

Tom was an Army Infantry Soldier for 16 years and served in Afghanistan and in Kosovo in overseas deployments.

Charriese was in the Army Reserve for about 11 years and was a firefighter. She served overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then as a civilian, Charriese worked for the Army Corps of Engineers in the regulatory department. She was also a firefighter for the City of Excelsior for 13 years.

Both are medically retired from the Armed Forces due to injuries that occurred during their times of service.

After Tom was discharged from the Army, he decided to go back to school and started at Mankato State University to study zoology. That led him into a series of ecology courses and questions about permaculture – farm ecosystems that are sustainable and self-sufficient.

Now, both Tom and Charriese are getting their bachelor’s degrees in sustainable agriculture from University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They found their farm while Charriese was doing a project for a college course.

“We met a farmer – through her research project – who wanted to sell,” said Tom. “He wanted to sell, we were looking for a farm, and all the stars aligned.”

VFI was established as a 501(c)(3) in April 2018, and they closed and purchased the farm in August 2018.

The farm includes Heritage-breed pasture-raised Mangalitsa/Guinea Hogs cross pigs, Icelandic sheep, and goats for dairy or meat production. They have a silvopasture area that includes perennial grasses in a forest stand for livestock grazing. They also have berries including elderberries. VFI joined the Midwest Elderberry Cooperative and they want to sell their elderberries through the coop.

They also hope to develop hazelnut production on their farm.

Their operation includes laying hens, and they sell some eggs, asking $6 per dozen.

“We’ll be doing broilers and turkeys and ducks probably next year,” said Charriese. “In the future we plan to bring in guineas, quail, broilers. If we end up obtaining more land, we’d like to raise out some Scottish Highland cattle.”

They are selecting livestock and poultry that are adapted to Minnesota’s climate and winter cold.

It’s working. The Icelandic ewes gave birth to vigorous lambs during March blizzards and cold. On the coldest days, the sheep preferred to lay outside and were completely covered with snow. When it was time to eat, the sheep would stand up and shake off the snow – no problem.

In addition to teaching about sustainability, VFI is set up to provide services and programs for veterans, as well as spouses and children of veterans.

The couple knows that many veterans could benefit from learning how to raise some of their own food, even if it is just a small garden or a vertical garden on an apartment balcony.

“Everything we do is adaptable or potentially adaptable for any disability,” said Tom. There are even adaptive systems that make it possible for someone who uses a wheelchair to move livestock in rotational grazing systems.

They also find that inviting veterans to work at their farm for a few days or longer can help veterans learn if they enjoy the rural lifestyle, as well as the hard and continuous work associated with livestock.

While the couple is financing the farm out of their own pockets, they continue to look at their business plans. They hope to receive some grants to help with their vision of providing services to other veterans.

“We did receive an initial grant from the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Charity for our marketing and branding,” said Charriese.

Recently, USDA announced a $16 million funding opportunity to support socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers. The 2501 Farm Bill program is administered by the USDA Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement.

The “Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program” will help nonprofits, higher education institutions and Indian Tribes develop programs. These grants are worth up to $750,000 over three years with an annual amount of $250,000 awarded, but many of the grants could be for less – perhaps $300,000 distributed over three years.

Those who receive grants are tasked with helping socially disadvantaged people and veterans gain the opportunity to own and operate farms. They will also help these groups learn more about participating in USDA programs. Hopefully, they can help build relationships between current farmers and ranchers and prospective farmers and ranchers. Ag innovation, technology and ag education are all priorities under this program.

The deadline for applications is Aug. 15, 2019, at 11:59 p.m., EST. For more information and applications, visit grants.gov.

Tom and Charrise say there are opportunities for farmers to help veterans too. They hope farmers will hire veterans or perhaps sell small parcels of farmland to veterans.

“I think the biggest thing that mainstream agriculture could do is become more open-minded as to how they could possibly employ or offer 10 acres here or 20 acres there,” Tom said .”I think a lot of farmers – when they get toward the end of their farming days – realize it would be nothing for them to help somebody get into farming that has served and protected their freedom.”

Visit @VFI.farm on Facebook to correspond with Tom and Charrise Norris, and to thank them for their service to our country and freedom!

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