Couple helps fellow veterans through fruits of their labor using their apple orchard
TOMAH – Veterans transitioning to civilian life face many challenges, including finding a good job after their service.
Value added agriculture is an appealing and increasingly promising path for transitioning veterans, especially since 45 percent of active service members come from rural America.
There is nothing that forces you to focus and find inner calm quite like being outside and working with Mother Nature, say Jim and Laura Leffel of Eau Claire, Wis..
Jim Leffel grew up on a dairy farm near Colby, Wis. When he and his wife, Laura, retired after 30 years of combined service in the United States Air Force, Jim wanted to return to the grounded lifestyle rooted in hard-work and again feel the connection to land that farming offered. Laura liked the idea of farming but she made it clear she did not want to live on a dairy farm.
That’s when the couple decided to settle on a small farm in western Wisconsin. They literally planted their roots (apple roots, that is) and established a 2,500-tree orchard that now includes an on-farm store where they sell bakery items, jams, cider, honey and of course, apples. They planted maple trees as wind breaks in the orchard and now those trees are producing enough sap so they can also market maple syrup.
“My parents made maple syrup on their farm when I was growing up so I was able to get their equipment to use here,” says Jim.
The Leffels took advantage of the USDA’s initiative to provide a path to farming and ranching careers for members of the military returning from active duty. Their Value Added Producer Grant was awarded partly because of the veteran farmer priority authorized by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill. The Leffels say programs like this are important tools for minimizing risk and giving veterans the confidence to try new things.
MORE: Military veterans, farmers find support through the National AgrAbility Project
Leffels use venture to help fellow veterans
When they began their agricultural endeavor, the Leffels were determined they would somehow turn their venture into a way for them to make a living on their 40-acre farm while helping fellow veterans.
As inexperienced farmers with no background in raising apples, they spent the first year concentrating on doing a good job establishing their trees and learning the business.
They lucked out and had a bumper crop. They were able to donate over 1,800 pounds of apples to Feed My People, the Wisconsin Veterans Home in Chippewa, and the Veterans Housing and Recovery Program.
As their business grew they wanted to do even more for veterans. Just donating apples didn’t seem like enough.
Laura says, “It may seem a little out of left field, but it’s not. We maintain our love of country and our fellow airmen and soldiers and we decided to pour out that love to veterans and those currently serving by using the fruits of our labor.”
Jim and Laura partnered with the Farmer Veteran Coalition and built a raised deck designed with disabled veterans in mind. The raised H-shaped deck designed with advice from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire disabilities office, allows guests with limited mobility or who use wheelchairs to easily reach 16 apple trees for a u-pick experience.
Since then they have had many groups – veterans and non-veterans – use the deck.
“We never thought the deck would be this popular,” Laura says.
To add to the fun and farm experience the Leffels created a sling shot to let guests aim apples at a target from their wheelchair. A raised pumpkin patch is also designed to expand u-pick opportunities for visitors.
WI Farmer Veteran Coalition chapter
The Leffels recently attended the AgrAbility Summit in Tomah where they had an opportunity to meet others who are involved with organizations helping veterans interested in establishing a career in farming.
The couple was instrumental in helping to start a Wisconsin chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. The organization’s mission is to mentor, educate, assist and build camaraderie among veterans in the state of Wisconsin. The group assists current farmer veterans or those who want to transition into farming.
“We were asked by Jeff Koch, an Army veteran who helped start the Wisconsin chapter, to assist him in organizing it," Jim said. "It was during the COVID year and we had Zoom Meetings between us and partners like MOSES and AgrAbility. We got it done.”
Laura says a farmer veteran groups provides a network for veterans who are new to the area but want to establish themselves in farming.
“In the Air Force everyone was instantly connected and supportive of one another. We were all new to the area," she said. "In farming communities, you feel alone in an established area and don't feel a part of their local networks."
They believe the group has a lot of potential in Wisconsin. The state group already has nearly 400 members.
“The small grants program and mentorship aspects impressed us," Laura said. "We were able to use the grant program for capital purchases to invest in a weather station and also in the wheelchair deck.”
Laura pointed out that some veterans have trouble transitioning from military to civilian life.
"They are used to being outdoors and doing things as a team,” she said.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition was originally organized in California in 2007 and it has expanded since then to other states.
Besides the mentorship opportunities there are other perks such as discounts from several large farm supply companies, grants for special projects and the opportunity to market products under the Homegrown by Heroes brand logo.
Since beginning their foray into farming, the Leffels say there are numerous opportunities and resources available to help other veterans get startedfarming. Membership in the Farmer Veterans Coalition as well as other organizations such as the Wisconsin Farm Center, Easter Seals AgrAbility program and others provide numerous services.
The largest organization supporting veterans through hardships and providing other services is the American Legion. In honor of their service to veterans, the Leffels designed a 10-acre corn maze with the American Legion logo. Inside the corn maze was a trivia quiz about veterans and the military, encouraging the public to appreciate veterans' sacrifices both in the community and on the battlefield.