Last modified March 19, 2017, at 12:56 p.m.
PITTSTON, Maine — A couple of years ago, when Army veteran Adria Horn found a piece of land she was interested in purchasing for her family’s new farm, she wanted to run the idea by her husband.
So she called him. But Lokie Horn, a security contractor originally from South Africa, wasn’t in a place where he could concentrate on a thoughtful discussion about Maine real estate. He was in a line of armored cars on the move in northwest Nigeria, getting ready to fight radical Islamic terror group Boku Haram, and the din of radios and chatter from the other men in the group was proving to be a distraction.
“I said, do you trust me to buy a farm?” Adria, now the director for the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services, recalled asking.
His response? “Just go buy something — I can’t work with you on this right now.”
In short: it was hardly just another day on the farm. But maybe it was business as usual for the Horns and other Maine farmers who are veterans, for whom unexpected weather and crop failures may not be the most difficult things that have ever happened to them.
Veterans are running a growing number of Maine’s small family farms — and they approach things a little differently than non-veteran farmers, shaped by their time in the military. But the lure of the land is just as strong for them as for other aspiring farmers. And Maine — with its affordable land prices and resources for new farmers — can be a great place for these veterans to get started.
“I feel like we’ve had 30 lifetimes being all over the world in high intensity situations,” Adria, 38, said. She’s retired from active duty service and her husband is semi-retired from his international security career. Both were ready for a major change when they decided to settle on a homestead in Maine.
“A bad day on the farm is better than a good day somewhere else,” she said.
Maine a good place for veterans to set roots
The Horns are in good company. According to Jerry Ireland, an Army veteran who runs Ireland Hill Farms in Swanville, there are now more than 250 veteran-owned farms in the Pine Tree State that belong to the non-profit United Farmer Veterans of Maine. It’s a number that has been growing steadily, Ireland, the group’s executive director, said.
“For a veteran, the work ethic, the mission, the purpose of everything is just as important as what you’re doing,” he said. “Coming home and going to a 9-5 job in a cube somewhere probably isn’t high on the list. But growing a product, raising animals, creating things, selling things and providing food and other things to the general public creates a real sense of accomplishment and purpose.”
Those words were echoed by Anne Weinberg of Chase Stream Farm in Monroe, who is a member of the United Farmer Veterans of Maine and who retired from the Marines last July after 27 years on active duty. She and her husband, retired Marine Tim Devin, are happy to be settling in with their family to the organic farm they found after searching all over New England for the perfect place. The couple looked at the USDA soil map and found that in southern New England, good soil often was already occupied by developments such as strip malls and apartment buildings. That wasn’t the case here, they said.
“In Maine, we found a place that had great soil and good infrastructure and good schools. The whole trifecta,” Weinberg, 49, said. “We kind of stumbled upon Maine, and we’re just so happy. It couldn’t have worked out better for us.”
Here, they have found local resources such as the Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and national resources, including the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. In Maine — with its lower land prices and its smaller, specialized or diversified farms — farmers’ barriers to entry seem lower than elsewhere.
“Because farms are smaller here, they’re more accessible,” Weinberg said. “I really think Maine is on the cusp. I think it could become the breadbasket of New England at least. It’s a real foodie state and there’s a lot of great, untapped potential.”
Once Chase Stream Farm is up and running, she and Devin are planning to help increase some veterans’ access to farming. They want to invite other veterans to their land to teach them how to learn to farm, too. For them, it feels like the right thing to do.
“The reason why farming seems to be such a clean fit, in our experience, is that the selfless devotion to duty is something that’s really well ingrained in the military,” Weinberg said. “Military members, from the moment they become enlisted, it’s all about being responsive and responsible to your community. You can see how easily that could translate into a farming community.”
Some veterans prefer not to work around people or in office jobs when they get out of the military, she said, but are able to work around animals or in the fields.
“It can be very soothing,” Weinberg said. “There’s a lot of healing that can happen in the outdoors. This can be a good place, if you’re not afraid to work hard and not afraid to get dirty.”
‘Good for my soul’
For the Horns, the idea to start a farm really came from Lokie, who had grown up on a farm in South Africa. The 45-year-old served in his country’s defense forces, and then became a private security contractor. But he always figured he’d get back to a farm one day.
“It’s a funny thing about South Africans. You always want to go back to the land,” he said. “You always want to go back to that peace of mind and that quietness.”
But he would never have imagined that his farm would be located in rural Maine — at least not until he met Adria, a New Hampshire native and 2001 West Point graduate whose career has essentially been defined by the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. She was deployed to Iraq at the beginning of the American invasion in 2003, working with civilian security. Lokie was among the South African security experts contracted to help protect American military brass in Iraq. That’s where they connected, and after her 14 years of active Army duty and five overseas deployments, they decided to look for property to homestead in Maine.
At first, they settled in the York County town of Hollis, but then decided to seek more land so they could jump into farming with both feet. The couple now has two daughters, Ava, 5, and Juliette, 11 months.
“It became this dream that he wanted to do, and I said I’m not going to be the one to stand in the way of your dreams,” Adria said. “My family was like, ‘What are you doing? We didn’t send you to West Point to be a farmer.’ But we liked it, and we wanted more space.”
They bought a 91-acre parcel in Pittston and started populating it with rabbits, chickens, geese, ducks, guinea fowl, sheep and — surprisingly — yaks. Domestic yaks, which are distant relatives of cows and buffalo, are native to the Himalaya region of southern central Asia. But now, thanks to the Horns, there is a small but growing herd in central Maine.
“There was no grand master plan,” Adria said. “We decided that this is really an opportune moment for us to pursue farming. You can do volume, or you can do niche, and it seems like Maine is a very good place for niche. We started to look at animals that would be very self-sufficient, and we found that the yak was like that. Super hardy, and from a cold climate. They eat a quarter of what a cow eats, and provide lean beef. You can milk them, too.”
At the farm, the youngest yaks — named Pocahontas and Mulan by the Disney-loving Ava — are the friendliest. Pocahontas, who was bottle-fed, loves people and nuzzles right up to Adria, Lokie and any visitors who happen to wander into the hay-smelling barn.
“This one basically wants to suck your fingers all day long,” Adria said.
Right now, when the couple can get away from Pocahontas’s exuberant displays of affection, their lives are very busy, both on and off the farm. Adria spends her workdays in Augusta or elsewhere in the state helping veterans, and describes herself as the “farm help.” Lokie has more on-farm projects planned than time to complete them. They are working towards having their farm be financially self-sustaining, and want to take the time to do it right.
“I think a military background helps you to plan,” Lokie said. “If you don’t plan, you’re going to fail somewhere down the line.”
And seeing the farm beginning to take shape the way they dreamed it would is helping them to keep on going, and they are enjoying seeing other veteran farmers make a go of it around the state, too. Adria Horn said that in some ways, farming may be easier for veterans who retire early enough from the military that they still have many years of productivity before them, and also have the solidity of their military retirement and access to health insurance squarely behind them. Together, these things mean that a formerly rootless soldier can happily dig into some dirt in Maine.
And, according to Jerry Ireland, these veterans are going to be contributing to the state’s agricultural renaissance as well as benefiting from the new opportunities it is providing. Right now, veterans farming in Maine are not just concentrating on traditional row crops, he said, but branching out into wood harvesting, bait farms, oyster farming, night crawler farming and more. Their creativity was fomented in their military experience, he said.
“I think you could take 100,000 veterans in Maine, put them all into agriculture and come out with 110,000 different products,” Ireland said. “Veterans learn to live outside the box in the military.”
And many are glad to finally be able to settle down.
“I felt for so long I couldn’t even have a goldfish,” Adria Horn said of her active duty years overseas. “You just crave roots. Having a farm is how you create roots on purpose. It keeps [me] grounded, and it’s good for my soul.”