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Military Life to Farm Life ― An Interview with a Farmer-Veteran

Here at FarmTek, we know our veterans and our farmers are the backbone of this country. What better way to pay tribute to our nation’s independence than to celebrate our veteran farmers? That’s why FarmTek has teamed up with the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) to provide discounted supplies for returning service men and women to start new careers in agriculture.

Our guest author, Emily Goldsher, interviewed one member of this program to learn more about the transition from military life to farm life. Matt Soldano, U.S. Marine and proprietor of Southtown Farms in New Jersey, shares his story.

First, can you tell me a little about yourself and your time in the United States Marine Corps?

FVC BrochureMy name is Matt Soldano. I was an active duty Marine from 2002 to 2006. I started off working as a field artillery cannoneer until our unit became a provisional rifle company, as the Iraq war progressed. From 2004 to 2005 I deployed with Echo Battery, 2nd Battalion 10th Marine Regiment, to the Al Anbar Provence of Iraq. There, I served as a fire team leader in charge of three other Marines. Our unit was charged with defending the outer perimeter of the Abu Ghraib prison. After returning from Iraq, our unit transitioned back to an artillery battery, where I served as an Ammunition Team Chief until my end of active service in 2006.

Have you always wanted to run your own farm? Did you work around farms growing up?

Free range layersI actually had never even been on a farm until I created my own farm. I grew up in a nice little suburb, with our half-acre backyard, where my dad always had a large vegetable garden, and grew most of our food during the summer season. I never really had an interest in farming until after I moved into my in-laws’ ten-acre parcel. I was given six chickens to care for. Something struck me about those birds. They were so amazing―the fact that they could produce a perfect piece of food for us to eat from nothing but some grain and kitchen scraps. So I got a few more birds, and found some neighbors who would buy the eggs. Next thing I know, I started getting requests from more neighbors for eggs. Then the local farmers market came along and wanted somebody to sell pastured poultry. I guess I had some of my family’s entrepreneurial spirit (my family runs a mid size concrete foundation company), because I wanted to figure out how to make a living off of these chickens that I loved so much. So that’s what I did!

What was it like transitioning from the Marine Corps to running Southtown Farms?

Transitioning from being a Marine to a full-time farmer has been much easier than trying to get a “regular” job. Reveille is early and the day is long. Every day, over and over again. Rain, snow or blistering heat, there’s no break. If you want to make your farm work, you have to push yourself. Just like we are taught in the Marine Corps. You get out of it what you put into it. My survival and my family’s survival is in my hands every day. If I don’t bring good food to the marketplace, then I can’t put good food on our table. I can’t afford a sick day. It feels good to have people and animals relying on me every day.

Your Facebook says, “As naturally as possible.” Was that the idea from the outset? I love hearing you just want to “let ducks be ducks.” What led you to choosing to go free-range?

Free range eggsI’ve always tried to raise all my animals naturally. I started off with chickens as pets. I like to think that if my customers were producing their own food, that’s how they would raise their animals. My customers pay me to raise their food in a natural setting that is pleasing to the animals. I never even considered a traditional chicken house or egg layer house in my operation. That’s just not how we do things, and it never will be.

Never in the history of mankind have human beings been so detached from their food. I had a customer ask me the other day, “Why did my egg have a feather in the carton?” I told her, “Eggs come from chickens, and chickens have feathers. If you were to grow your own chickens for eggs, this is exactly how you would get them, and that’s how I sell them.”

Southtown Farms' farm stand
How has it been working with the Farmer Veteran Coalition? Can you tell me a little about the program and process from a grantee’s standpoint?

The Farmer Veteran Coalition has been a great resource for me. Not only supplying me with the knowledge I need to succeed in farming, but funding to get my business off the ground. I am consistently impressed with how the program handles its farmer/veterans, and the lengths they go to help us out. I consider them vital to the success of my business.

You said you are in the process of obtaining two ClearSpan Mini Grab Bag Shelters from FarmTek—how has that been going?

Chickens on pastureI am pleased to tell that today I purchased two 10’ x 20’ hoop house style shelters for my pastured broiler operation. I am excited to get these shelters up and running. With these shelters in place, I hope to grow over 1,000 pastured broilers by October, and once the cold weather sets in, raise 200 ducks in them as well. Having these shelters will be huge for my business. In the past, I was not able to grow more than 300 broilers in a season, which would not give me enough product to sell year-round. Now I can stockpile birds in my freezer and still be competitive in the marketplace come winter.

So, are you also growing?

We are growing produce. It’s all field production right now, with our focus on tomatoes, peppers, beans, melons, flowers and a few other specialty items for our area. I would like to get a hoop house set up for melon production in the near future. I feel like I could grow a nicer variety of the fruit than what is available locally, but am hampered by our shorter growing season when compared to southern fruit growers. I’m trying to keep my main focus on livestock but would like to continue to expand organic produce production.

Southtown Farms vegetable plotWe sell our produce through a weekly roadside stand. Through the use of social media, we have enough of a fan following that we can get people to come out on specific harvest days, rather than harvesting a small amount of produce every day and hoping people will show up. The plan is to grow and sell enough produce to cover the upfront cost of livestock.

We also keep honeybees on the property. This year we only have one hive, but it has proven to be a worthwhile investment and we plan to start six more hives for next season.

Do you have any advice for veterans looking to get into farming? What about for hobbyists looking to expand?

As far as advice for anybody that wants to get into farming. Just do it already! Life is short—how many years are you going to spend dreaming and not doing? Farming is hard work, but so is being successful at anything. If you want to make a living off of this land, you can do it. Just start trying! You’re not always going to succeed, but if you want it bad enough, you can.

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