Afghanistan vet hopes to bring more former military into agriculture

Caynan Sherwood (from left) and Steve Buxton talk with Kim Erndt-Pitcher of the Prairie Rivers Network about how, when and where to sow perennial seed for pollinator habitat. Buxton and Sherwood started with seeding two waterways, a setaside area and a demonstration plot as pollinator habitat. The seed was gathered from five acres of restored prairie that Kim and her husband have on their own farm in southern Illinois.

“I never pictured myself as a farmer. I said it’s just farming. You put the seed in the ground, God does the rest, it’ll grow,” Sherwood said.

Sherwood has learned a lot since then. Now, he talks about soil health, cover crops and regenerative farming.

“I didn’t know about yields or anything else. Now I’m focused on soil health and what the soil is doing,” Sherwood said.

The president of the soon-to-be official Illinois chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition has learned a lot from his father-in-law and farming partner, Steve Buxton. They raise 400 acres of certified organic corn, soybeans and wheat on their Two Mile Creek Organic Farm near Sullivan.

Buxton’s wife, Paula, and Sherwood’s wife, Abbey, operate the storefront side of the farm that includes a garden, produce, greenhouses and a floral business.

“It’s a full family farm. Me, my wife, our daughter, my father-in-law, his wife, cousins and aunts come out there. It’s a really good community and family vibe,” Sherwood said.

He credits Steve Buxton with providing the inspiration and direction for him when he and Abbey and their baby daughter, Kassidy, returned to Illinois from Fort Lewis, Washington, following Caynan’s medical retirement from the U.S. Army.

Caynan’s service includes serving with and a 2009 deployment to Afghanistan with the Illinois Army National Guard in Matton and a second deployment in 2014 to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss, Texas.

“My father-in-law kept talking to me about coming to farm. He said it gives you more freedom, you get to spend more time with your family, the hours are better,” Sherwood said.

Sherwood enjoyed the job he found at the corporate offices of Rural King in Mattoon, but he thought that Buxton might be right.

“I wanted to be outside. I wanted to be more active than what I was at a desk,” he said.

Now, he wants to help and encourage other veterans who might be needing that same encouragement.

“I want to help. I want to help veterans and service members who get out of the military and want to transition to agriculture. I want to give them a direction to go,” he said.

The Farmer Veterans Coalition is a national organization that seeks to both bring military veterans into agriculture and farming careers and provide resources, from financial to educational to community, for farmer veterans.

“We have all of these people who have been through similar circumstances and stresses and now we are all farming. It’s just an amazing feeling. You go from serving your country to serving your community,” Sherwood said.

He discovered the Farmer Veteran Coalition during a trip with Buxton to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin. After chatting with Michael O’Gorman, the founder of FVC, Sherwood did some research on the group.

“I was kind of curious. There are a lot of programs out there that say they are out there to help support veterans and be there for veterans. I don’t trust all organizations that say that. Michael was legitimate and I followed some of the stories from other service members,” he said.

Sherwood recognized his own story, being at a loose end after his military career came to an end, needing to provide for a family, but not having a definite non-military career goal.

“We didn’t know what we wanted to do,” he said.

Like many, the military had provided a purpose, as well as a job along with friends. Sherwood planned to make the Army his career.

“I did not want to get out. I had every intention of retiring from the military. I just didn’t anticipate retiring this way,” Sherwood said.

Now established in farming, Sherwood wants to share his story and encourage other veterans into farming and agriculture. He sees the discipline, lessons and skills learned in the military as a good fit with farming and other careers in agriculture.

“In the military, you deal with stress and learn how to adapt and overcome. You have to have integrity, you rely on yourself. In farming, you can’t blame anybody else if something doesn’t get done. It’s on you. I think service members know about getting things done and getting things done when they need to happen,” he said.

The group includes farmers of all ages and from all branches of the service and farmers of all types of crops and livestock.

“It’s row-crop farms, CSAs, livestock farms. We have dairy farmers. We have farmers who raise bees. We all communicate, and this really good camaraderie is there,” Sherwood said.

It also means there are fellow veterans to talk to, many of whom served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s a community. You can reach out to the other farmers. People are there to help one another,” Sherwood said.

Jeannine Otto can be reached at 815-223-2558, ext. 211, or jotto@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow her on Twitter at: @AgNews_Otto.

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