At first glance, a military career and farming livelihood may not seem to cross-pollinate. But dig a little deeper and hear the inspiring story of veteran Stepheni Norton, owner of Dickinson Farm in San Diego, and the opportunities for former military to both heal and thrive in the field quickly grow.
Norton’s inspiring story celebrates two growing hot spots in agriculture: the growth of urban farms and the number of women farmers, which has grown twenty percent in the last twenty years as I write about in my book, Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers.
“Veterans today launch start-ups at twice the average national rate,” shares Stepheni Norton, a retired Chief Petty Officer who successfully did just that when she transitioned to become a farmer entrepreneur in 2012 after a military career. If given the right environment to thrive, military skills can indeed readily transfer to running one’s own business, as Norton feels her Coast Guard experience contributes to her success today. “Being outside with my hands in the soil also made all the difference for me and other veterans working through PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Growing tomatoes can cure all things that ail you.”
In 2012, Norton launched Dickinson Farm, an urban farm in southern San Diego. She operates a year-round urban vegetable and fruit farm with her husband, Michael Lesley, who is also a US veteran. Together they raise a variety of organic heirloom vegetables on one quarter acre and sell to area chefs, including Chef Coral Strong at Garden Kitchen as well as hosting farm-to-table dinner events on site.
Norton quickly rose to be a leader in San Diego’s budding local food movement with her high energy blend of “get it done” spirit alongside collaboration, two areas her years in the military helped cultivate.
“In the military, you learn about quickly figuring out hands-on solutions and that is exactly what is needed in farming,” adds Norton.
Her story epitomizes four key military skills that successfully transfer to running an agricultural enterprise, aptitudes we can all learn from and nurture in our farm business ventures:
“The military fosters an attitude of taking quick action, which is exactly what you need to handle the day-in-day-out curveballs of farming,” explains Norton. “Veterans can handle tangible emergencies very well, such as when a storm is coming in and we need to figure out a quick way to cover the peas so they can weather the winds.”
The ability to go with the flow and evolve, even when there isn’t an end goal in sight, is a crucial skill in any business start-up venture, especially farming. “When we first saw this property in 2012, I didn’t have an exact vision of what it is today, but rather took small steps, tried out new ideas and gathered feedback, just as I did in my military days.”
“We veterans know there are multiple solutions to any problem and that often the expected, tried and true answer is not the best option,” Norton offers. “For example, when we first started everyone expected us to vend at farmers’ markets. But I started thinking how can we do it differently and how can Dickinson Farm instead take our farm stand directly to the ‘cool spots’ where your best customers hang out already.”
Norton found hipsters hanging out at ChuckAlek Biergarten, a local independent brewery. So, she started running what has been called the “Tiniest Farmers Market” with one stand – hers -- in San Diego on Tuesday nights.
“This informal, laid back setting proves to be the ideal opportunity to really engage with and talk to potential customers about my farm and answer questions,” explains Norton. “Importantly, the types of people seeking out local beer are also in the market for organic produce. It’s a win-win, too, for the brewery as my farm market stand adds interest and value on a typically slower Tuesday evening at no cost to them.”
Norton sees Dickinson Farm as reaching way beyond a profitable venture and the bottom line as she openly shares her story, both the highs and lows, with others. Partnering with local chefs and event planners, Norton hosts multiple on-farm dinner events on the farm that provide a social yet educational backdrop from which to share her story.
Fortunately, too, there are increasing resources specifically for veterans wanting to farm such as the Farmer Veteran Coalition.
It’s the same thing with farming as those peas quickly add up to more than just an ingredient in soup: Dickinson Farm plays a role in transforming the local food system and how we understand where our food comes from.
“I always keep the bigger mission in mind on the farm, just as I did back in the Coast Guard. ‘What are my passion points and how can I live them to the fullest’ is a question I often ask myself,” shares Norton. “And if you’re a little afraid, you are heading in the right direction,” she grins.
Lisa Kivirist, with her husband and photographer, John D. Ivanko, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of Lisa's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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