“One of the things I’ve observed is that a lot of veterans in the [California Farm Academy] training are naturally inclined to farming. In some ways, soldiers are trained to be farmers. It seems weird, but we are. Farming is a lot of mission-oriented work. There are tasks to be done at a certain time, and they need to be done in a certain way. We are trained that way. Pruning needs to be done now. Adding amendments to soil has to be done in a certain way and at a certain time. That’s the way we were taught in the military.” – Joe Oliveira
The UC Food Observer recently had an opportunity to chat with Joe Oliveira, a veteran…and a new farmer. Oliveira is a Vietnam-era veteran who has served in multiple branches of the U.S. military. He also had a nearly 30-year career in law enforcement before entering farming. While his family roots are in agriculture, Oliveira came relatively late to it: he turned 65 in August. He farms ten acres of almonds with his wife, Karen, in the Modesto area; they are in the processing of increasing their land holding.
Oliveira is a graduate of the Center for Land-Based Learning’s California Farm Academy. The California Farm Academy offers a seven-month program in Winters (a small town in Solano, California). Over the course of thirty weeks between February and September, academy members meet at an incubator farm to learn best practices in cropping, production, soil science, pest management, irrigation and more. They also learn the business side of farming. You can learn more about the Center for Land-Based Learning and the California Farm Academy by reading our Q&A with executive director Mary Kimball.
Oliveira’s participation in the program was funded by the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national program that is based in Davis, California. The Farmer Veteran Coalition seeks to cultivate the next generation of farmers and food leaders, focusing on employment and career development via collaboration between the farming and military communities. You can learn more about the Farmer Veteran Coalition by reading our Q&A with its founder and executive director, Michael O’Gorman; it runs tomorrow.
The UC Food Observer thanks Joe and all veterans for their service to our nation.
Q: What branch of the military did you serve in? What was your role?
Joe: Technically, I was actually in three different branches. I started out in the Army. I went to Vietnam, came home and went to college. Then I served in the Marine Corps. When I got out I went into the U.S. Army Reserve. I was a helicopter pilot. I started out in Hueys and switched over to Cobras. This past August I turned 65.
Q: Where did you grow up? Were you in Future Farmers of America, 4-H or another agricultural program as a kid?
Joe: I was born in Salinas, and grew up in Seaside (Monterey County). I graduated from Seaside High and then moved to the Modesto area and pretty much this has been my home base since 1969.
No, I wasn’t in FFA. I do have some background in farming. My great-grandfather on my dad’s side owned a 500-acre cattle ranch between Salinas and Hollister. In our family, it was a mandated type of thing that you worked on the cattle ranch in the summer. I learned how to ride a horse before I owned a bicycle.
Q: Did you always want to be a farmer?
Joe: Oh, heck no. It’s been kind of a progression of things. In a way, I am getting back to my roots now. My dad and grandpa owned a goat dairy near Spreckels (Salinas Valley, Monterey County). The first few years of my life were spent living on the goat dairy. So I am getting back to my roots.
Q: What inspired you to enroll in the Center for Land-Based Learning’s California Farm Academy program?
Joe: Again, it was kind of a progression of things. In addition to the military, when I was in the reserves I was also a police officer. I retired after nearly 30 years in law enforcement. After our children grew up and moved out, my wife and I had a home in the Oakdale area of Modesto. And it was a big, two-story house with a pool, in town. We decided to sell. We knew we wanted to move out of town and into the country. We wanted a few acres to grow our own food. We were thinking 1.5-3 acres. Something small. We found 5 acres in a 400-acre ranchette sub-division and were thinking about building.
The property we’re on now was ten acres and it already had almond trees. We picked it up on short sale and thought, “We can learn about farming.” That’s kind of how we got into it. We have a lot of friends who are almond farmers, so we can access advice and have people we can go to. We have a good mentor in the local area and a really good pest control applicator. We have some really wonderful people we can draw on and that has helped us immensely.
It’s all been kind of cool and interesting in terms of how it unfolded. One of our daughters recently graduated from nursing school. Her friend had a graduation party, and it turns out that young woman’s husband works for the Sacramento Food Bank. They have land also – and he had attended the California Farm Academy. He told me to look into it and said, “Since you’re a veteran, you should also contact the Farmer Veteran Coalition.” And I spoke with Michael O’Gorman, their executive director. And he told me, “You apply and get accepted, we’ll pay for it.” And I did and I had a blast!
Q: What was the California Farm Academy like?
Joe: It’s hard to think of the words to describe it. I recommend it to anybody who thinks they want to be farmer that is not currently farming. Or anyone who has dabbled in farming and wants to step up and get more into production should consider attending. If you have not done something like that you have no idea what’s involved in farming. Especially if you’re doing row cropping. In the California Farm Academy, it’s all about learning all the many, many things you have to know to farm successfully. Some hold this image of farmers as dumb hicks. That’s just not accurate. Most farmers know more about ecology, math, hydrology hydroponics, irrigation, mechanical repair than most people…you name it, farmers have to know something about it.
That old phrase “jack of all trades, master of none”…it’s been used in a derogatory fashion at times. But it’s not a derogatory thing when it comes to being a farmer. And you have to be pretty good at all of it. Otherwise, you could not afford as a farmer these days to hire out and get it all done. You better know how to put up fencing, basic diesel mechanics, know how to repair an irrigation system, basic welding…otherwise you’ll go broke.
Farming has been a big boon in our lives. My wife encouraged me to do this. In addition to the hands-on practical skills, we got the background and the business management side of farming. That includes learning how to figure out crop rotations, get a business plan put together, do spreadsheets, etc. I’m the mechanical hands-on guy. In her prior work, my wife did bookkeeping and accounting and she excels on the business side.
Q: Can you tell our readers about your ag operation? What are you growing?
Joe: We have 10 acres in all, with about 8.5-9 acres in production. We are currently getting ready to start negotiating on another ten acres adjacent to our property. If we can get it, we’ll plant another ten acres of almonds. By staying with one crop it makes it a lot better for us, because we don’t have to purchase additional implements.
Q: You’re still working another full-time job?
Joe: I still work full-time as a respiratory care practitioner at the local hospital.
I have constraints on my time. I’ll lay down this afternoon, take a nap and then go to work tonight. When I get home, I’ll rest for a couple of hours, but tomorrow morning we’re having some road rock delivered and I need to spread that out.
Q: What are your biggest challenges?
Joe: There is nothing I’d actually call challenges. We rely on our faith a great deal and we’ve been blessed immensely, even in getting this property. We started out with 1.5 acres, now we have ten and may soon have ten more. We’re in the process of adopting our great-niece and it’s about having a place for her. The Lord gave this to us to have it for her.
It is a great deal of work day-to-day…there is always something to do. We have to think about coming up with funding to get some of the equipment we need. We still need a shop building and a pole barn. We’re figuring out things as we go along. But we made so many contacts through the California Farm Academy (including California FarmLink). And that is all helping. That’s my perspective. Since I’ve been in stressful work since I was 19 [serving as a soldier in Vietnam] I have a different perspective about what’s challenging.
Q: How do we get more vets farming?
Joe: The Farmer Veteran Coalition is national; there are programs available in many places. The organization could use more funding. They are pretty much dependent on private funding to do a lot of things. Money for my tuition came from private donations. Seeing funding increase to help more vets is important and nice. The federal government is starting to step up more right now. I was just reading about how the USDA made changes to funding for veterans. But they need to do more.
I disagree with many of the ways in which the federal government is allocating resources. Our veterans have put their lives on the line and are still doing without. The government needs to step up.
One of the things I’ve observed is that a lot of veterans in the [California Farm Academy] training are naturally inclined to farming. In some ways, soldiers are trained to be farmers. It seems weird, but we are. Farming is a lot of mission-oriented work. There are tasks to be done at a certain time, and they need to be done in a certain way. We are trained that way. Pruning needs to be done now. Adding amendments to soil has to be done in a certain way and at a certain time. That’s the way we were taught in the military.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
Joe: I’d just like to say to any other veterans who are not farming but are thinking about it: don’t be afraid to take that first step. Find somebody somewhere, find a little piece of property –even half an acre – don’t be afraid to take that step. You can do it.
I was a little afraid at first, but put my mind and body into it. And right now I’m looking at an orchard that looks incredible, even though the trees were only planted in January. And that’s in part due to the other people who have helped me. And that’s key: find other people to help you. They are out there.
I’d also say this: the farming community is a lot like the military. Farmers are willing and ready to help new farmers. They’re out there. It’s really incredible. That’s how we met our mentor. His wife helps Karen with books and he helps me. We visit many farms during the California Farm Academy and the farmers we visit almost hurt themselves to try to help us. That’s what is so cool about it. It’s no different in the military. When you’re out with a combat unit, it’s not thirty individuals; it is thirty members of one unit. And that’s what farming is like. Farming and the military are a perfect match.
We need more young farmers. I’m the oxymoron: I started late. There are a lot of farmers my age and they are going to be retiring. And they don’t necessarily have youngsters that want to continue farming. The Central Valley produces most of the food for the state of California and a huge percentage of the food consumed in this country. The price of land is higher in California, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done in other places. If you can’t do it here, move. Military people are used to that, too.
Editor’s Note: The Farmer Veteran Coalition will be hosting its 2015 Stakeholders Conference on November 17-19th in Sacramento. The theme of the conference is “Cultivating Connections for Veterans. For Agriculture. For America.” Learn more and register here. You may have an opportunity to meet Joe.
Related Link: Q&A: Michael O’Gorman, Farmer Veteran Coalition