The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its five-year census on April 11, and for the first time it includes a category for military veterans who are farming. The census shows that Kentucky currently has about 13,000 farmers with miltary service.
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture recognized the value of this combination in 2013 with the creation of a program called Homegrown By Heroes. It's a marketing initiative to spotlight and support agricultural producers with military experience.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said Homegrown By Heroes currently has 212 members in Kentucky and the program has captured national attention.
“This has been such a success that other states around the country are borrowing our logo and trademark for their own programs through a collaboration that we have,” said Quarles.
Homegrown By Heroes is now part of the national Farmer Veteran Coalition and has more than 1,100 members in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.
To be certified as a member of Homegrown By Heroes and have access to the logo and other marketing initiatives, the farm has to be at least 50 percent owned and managed by a military veteran.
That 50 percent criteria works well for two Kentucky members of Homegrown by Heroes who have launched specialty agricultural ventures in partnership with their wives. One is a Navy veteran with a flower farm and another is an active duty Army intelligence officer who has a vineyard.
From the Military to Starry Fields Farm
On 20 gently rolling acres in the community of Rockland in Warren County, Navy veteran Ryan Broyles goes into the small red barn that's handpainted with flowers and checks to see if the chickens have laid any eggs.
It's difficult to count the number of chickens because they're wandering in and out of the barn.
“Right now we have 22," said Broyles. "We’ve had some issues where we’ve lost some, for different reasons they’ve died.”
Thirty-five-year-old Broyles said trouble with chickens will not lessen his enthusiasm for life here on Starry Fields Farm, located a few miles outside of Bowling Green.
“I like farming. It is something that I have found more and more I like being outside," said Broyles. "I also really like raising animals. We have raised goats and cows, we don’t have any at the moment. This year we’re going to get into raising some pigs and some sheep.”
Broyles and his wife, Jessica, who are both from Florida, and their three children made the transition three years ago from military life to their Starry Fields Farm.
"We wanted to find a place where we could find a house and a farm. We didn’t know exactly at that moment what we were going to farm," said Broyles. "So we looked at Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina. And most of the things we were looking for we found here in Kentucky.”
One of those things is his job as an audiologist with a medical group in Clarksville, Tennessee, near Fort Campbell, about an hour’s drive from the farm.
Broyles trained as an audiologist in graduate school in Florida, then joined the Navy as an officer and served for five years. He was stationed in the Norfolk, Virginia area and Japan.
"When we were in Japan we started growing some flowers and a garden and we really liked that," said Broyles.
When they moved to Kentucky, Jessica Broyles said they wanted to create something beautiful on their land and they decided to create a flower farm. Ryan Broyles said they like offering the community many varieties of fresh flowers that are often not readily available.
On a recent morning, Jessica Broyles gazed over the field of spring plantings.
“We have bachelor buttons, larkspur, bells of Ireland and yarrow and poppies and snapdragons, feverfew, rudbeckia, ranunculus, straw flower, more larkspur, agristema, nigella, white dill, anemone, honeywart, peonies. I think that’s everything that’s in the ground right now," she said.
Starry Fields Farm is growing its customer base by supplying fresh cut flowers for special events such as weddings and proms, as well as bringing fresh flowers weekly to the Community Farmers Market in Bowling Green. Jessica Broyles, whose has been a music teacher, is offering flower arranging workshops on the farm.
Ryan and Jessica Broyles realize the need to diversify to bring in income on the farm. They're raising their third litter of Great Pyranees puppies, a fluffy and friendly white breed. The Broyles are also part of a growing segment of the population focused on fresh local food and for now, their vegetables, meat and eggs from their farm are for family and friends.
Agriculture Commissioner Quarles said one of the three main purposes of the Homegrown by Heroes program is to meet the growing consumer demand to ‘buy local.’
He said the other major goals of the program are to support military veterans who are farming and to strengthen and diversify the state’s agriculture industry.
“Homegrown By Heroes helps build the economy because we know that there are consumers and businesses that not only want to support Kentucky agriculture, but also give recognition to those who served us in uniform, as well,” said Quarles.
The agriculture commissioner said nearly 30 percent of farmers in Kentucky have a military background.
Another Kentucky farmer who is a member of of Homegrown by Heroes is Army Major Drew Rogers, 35, who has served in the military 18 years.
Rogers is an Army intelligence officer who usually works from an office in Bowling Green, about 15 miles away, and said it's also an easy drive from his 30 acre farm in Warren County to Ft. Campbell or Ft. Knox.
Rogers and his wife, Jessica, a physcial therapist, found south-central Kentucky the perfect place to create Bluegrass Vineyard in 2014 and raise their three young children, with a fourth one on the way.
Drew and Jessica Rogers are both from Indiana and find the rocky soil of their Kentucky farm conducive to their shared vision of a vineyard.
“It’s about 1,800 grape vines. We have 10 different varieties of grapes," said Drew Rogers. "Most are French-American hybrid varieties.”
The couple has an expanded venture in the works: moving the wine processing, which is currently in a separate area on the bottom floor of their house, to a recently purchased portion of their 30 acres that has a three-car garage. They're also planning a wine tasting room. The additional property also has a large house that will soon become a bed and breakfast, and possibly a special events venue.
Rogers said they consider it important that their Bluegrass Vineyard produce not only wine, but fun.
“During our harvest parties we separate the grapes from the stems. We smash the grapes, " said Rogers. "We’ll put wooden planks on top of the grapes and get people to start dancing on them. The extra weight gets a lot more juice to flow. So people just love getting up there and dancing around on grapes.”
These members of Homegrown By Heroes, Drew Rogers and Ryan Broyles and their families, are contributing more than new businesses to Kentucky. With acres of flowers and people dancing to crush grapes, they’re also adding beauty and joy to the community.