Sara Creech stands in front of a tractorSara Creech, who was a nurse in the Air Force, turned to farming. She named her operation Blue Yonder Organic Farm. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Turning Swords into Plowshares

Purdue Helps Military Veterans Become Farmers


By Darrin Pack - Published November 6, 2015

Soon after Sara Creech bought a farm she had never seen in a place she had never been, she drove to her local feed store to pick up her first livestock.

"Every good adventure starts with a chicken," she says with a smile.

The five hatchlings she took home that day represented the start of a new life for Creech, a former Air Force nurse who had suffered a string of personal setbacks. Like many veterans, she had a hard time readjusting to civilian life after witnessing the horrors of war.

Starting a farm was her redemption, she says, and she is working with Purdue University's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program to help other veterans rebuild their own lives, as she did, through agriculture.

​Sara Creech, owner of Blue Yonder Organic Farm in North Salem, Indiana, and former Air Force nurse, and Cindy Chastain, farmer veteran coordinator for the National AgrAbility Project based at Purdue University, explain why farming could be a good option for military veterans seeking to readjust to civilian life and what veterans need to know to get started on a new career in agriculture.

Learning How to Grow

Creech joined the Air Force in 2004 and served as a combat nurse in Qatar during 2005-2006. When she returned home, she was emotionally paralyzed and couldn't go back to work.

Sara Creech stands in army gear and backpackSara Creech in the Air Force. (Photo provided by Sara Creech)

"I struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder from some of my experiences and really had a hard time connecting with people again and basically connecting with my life again," she says. Her husband, Charles, an Air Force pilot, suggested that she try gardening as a way out of her depression.

"I had never been on a farm, didn't really know anything about being outdoors," she says. "I pulled up my entire front yard in Florida, where we were based, put in some vegetables and started learning how to grow things. I was just really excited by planting a seed and seeing something come up."

Just when Creech thought her life was getting back on track, her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer. The couple traveled to Houston, Texas, and lived in a hotel for nine months while he was treated at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

"There was nothing for us to do but drive around and look at farms," Creech says. "At that time we really started looking at our diet and how our food was grown. We met all these farmers and saw all these different types of farm enterprises and were just totally engaged by what they were doing. We really felt it was something we wanted to look at as soon as he retired in a few years."

But they never got the chance. He died in 2011.

"At that time, I had to figure out really how to start a new life, and the one thing that kept popping up was go and farm, go and farm," she says.

Middle of Nowhere

Creech scanned the Internet and found a listing for a plot of land that seemed ideal. There was no picture and only a vague description of the property, but she put in an offer anyway, not really expecting anything to come of it. On the day she was supposed to start a new job at a bank near her Florida home, she got a call from a real estate agent. Her offer had been accepted. Her adventure began.

But every good adventure story has a few plot twists. The first came when Creech arrived in her new hometown. North Salem, Indiana, is a dot on a map at the intersection of state Routes 75 and 236, about 20 miles west of Indianapolis. There are two stoplights and about a dozen old-fashioned storefronts. It seemed to Creech like "the middle of nowhere."

At first glance the farm, just about a mile down the road from the town center, looked bad. After further inspection it was worse—weedy, rocky and nearly ruined by soil depletion. Optimistically, Creech named it Blue Yonder Organic Farm, a reference to the official Air Force song.

Sara Creech collects eggs on her Blue Yonder farm.Sara Creech collects eggs on her Blue Yonder farm. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Tour of Duty

Creech began attending Purdue Extension workshops and the annual Purdue Small Farms Conference. When the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program proposed a daylong workshop and farm tour for veterans, Creech volunteered to be the host.

Organizers hoped to attract 25-30 veterans to the event. More than 40 signed up, including Tom Beaudette, who was nearing retirement after 25 years as a construction engineer in the Navy.

Beaudette had never farmed before, but he and wife Mandy bought nine rolling acres just south of Kokomo in north-central Indiana, where they hoped to raise livestock. During the workshop he was especially interested in the presentations by the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Credit Service about the financial assistance available to veterans who want to start farms.

"Farming would give me a chance to keep working," he said. "I'm not a couch potato. I love working with my hands and with animals."

Viable Career Option

Creech says she is excited about military veterans getting involved in agriculture.

"I think it's a type of business that has a lot of variables and really needs somebody who can see an entire big picture, but at the same time can be really flexible and responsive to the issues that come up."

Cindra Chastain, farmer veteran coordinator for the National AgrAbility Project based at Purdue, believes agriculture offers a viable career option for former military members.

"There has certainly been a movement of military veterans coming out of the service and pursuing careers in agriculture," she says. "We hope to create a network of farmer veterans who can interact and learn from each other."

Cindra ChastainCindra Chastain, who served for 30 years in the Army and the National Guard, is now farmer veteran coordinator for the National AgrAbility Project based at Purdue. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

One of Chastain's priorities when she came to Purdue in 2014 was to work with the newly established Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program to create a broad-based support system for veterans interested in farming.

"The hardest part, for many veterans, is finding the financial assistance they need to acquire land," she says. "One of our goals is to help them identify and apply for the various government grant and loan programs they're entitled to."

Her Own Kind of Healing

Chastain, a Purdue Agriculture graduate, served for 30 years in the military, first in the Army and then the National Guard. Her final command was the 119th Agribusiness Development Team, a unit assigned to help rebuild the war-ravaged farms of Afghanistan.

She thinks the skills and characteristics that make a person a good soldier can also help make a good farmer.

"You have to be able to work outside, work with your hands and, most of all, be disciplined," she says. "And working with animals and plants can be therapeutic."

Creech found her own kind of healing on the farm.

"I think military veterans especially have this need to put some positive healing back into the land and back into the community," she says. "I think most people who go into the military do that out of a desire for service, a desire to help out their community and their country. And I think as military veterans we're always looking for that next mission, and with farming that mission is to provide healthy foods to our communities."

Purdue Resources for Veterans

Purdue University offers support services for veterans, active duty personnel and military families, including:

  • Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program
    Provides direct, practical assistance to anyone who is new to farming, especially operators of small farms and military veterans. Contact Tamara Benjamin at 765-496-1930, tamara17@purdue.edu.
  • National AgrAbility Project
    Supports farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers with disabilities through education, networking and direct services. Contact Cindra Chastain at 765-496-2377, chastai1@purdue.edu.
  • 4-H Military Partnership
    Supports children of military families through 4-H Club activities. 765-494-8435, in4hmilitary@gmail.com.
  • Veterans Success Center
    Provides academic and social support services for student veterans at Purdue. 765-494-7638, dogtags@purdue.edu.
  • Military Family Research Institute
    Through research and outreach, works to improve the lives of service members and their families. 765-496-3403, mfri@purdue.edu.
​​