Editor’s Note: The following is Part V of “Hope on the Homefront,” the Ithaca Voice’s 10-part series on the struggles of the area’s veterans.

Read the introductionPart I; Part II; Part III; and Part IV. Additional features and columns running as part of the series can be found here.

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NEWFIELD, N.Y. — Dennis Hartley’s apples are not yet ripe.  The Vietnam veteran plucks a perfect looking red globe from a tree groaning under the weight of fruit and slices it open with a Swiss Army penknife.

“You can tell by the color of the seeds,” he says. “They are white. Once they start to brown, you have a ripe apple.” He tastes a small sliver and then spits it out. “That’s tart,” he says.

Hartley is the co-owner of Littletree Orchards in Newfield, and has been farming here since 1973. He grows apples, raspberries, crabapples (for jams and jellies), peaches, cherries, tomatoes and squash. Over 10,000 apple trees form neat green rows on 40 acres of hillside facing due east, ready for the morning sun. Hartley says he can thank his grandparents – his grandfather grew ornamental shrubs, mangoes and avocados in Florida – for instilling in him the passion and knowledge to have been successful in farming for this long.

Dennis Hartley, a Vietnam veteran, is the co-owner of Littletree Orchards in Newfield. Experts see farming as a way to help veterans returning from America’s wars abroad. All photos by Dave Burbank.

Years before Littletree, Hartley joined the Air Force aged 18, and became a loadmaster, flying in cargo planes and dropping supplies all over Vietnam. They also dropped flares on the Ho Chi Minh trail so the bomber pilots could see their targets more clearly.

He wanted to get in ahead of the draft, be in the air and not on the ground, he says, to have any chance of surviving the war.

Cornell’s federal grant will help New York State’s veteran farmers  

In February of this year the Cornell Small Farms Program won three grants to help identify and connect veteran farmers like Hartley across New York State. The grants exceeded $1,000,000 – with $712,500 coming from the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and two other, smaller, grants from the New York Farm Viability Institute and the Local Economies Project, a foundation based in Kingston, NY.

“Agriculture and farming is a hands on activity that requires logistical and planning skills and a willingness to do physical hard work,” says Anusuya Rangarajan, director of the Cornell Small Farms Program.

“It seems, in many ways, like a natural pathway for veterans. A high percentage of veterans come from rural areas. Being able to work outdoors within nature, being able to work independently; it is healing.

“Farming can be a balm to someone who has gone through some pretty traumatic events. There is a part of agriculture that is deeply contemplative.”

See related: From Baghdad to Trumansburg: A soldier finds purpose in paper-making

Rangarajan said the team’s goal, by the end of the next three years, is to have improved the agricultural knowledge and skills of at least 100 veteran farmers and 100 service providers.

Other goals are to help launch at least 20 new veteran-owned farms in New York and to help 30 “advanced beginner” farmers (farmers with ten years or less experience) improve profitability by 20 percent.

Creating a veteran-to-veteran farmer network

In his own small way, Hartley has already seen the need for veteran farmers to help each other.  He has a man on his farm who served recently in the military. He is now working for Hartley, going to the weekly farmers’ markets, pruning, mowing between the rows of trees.

“I was seeing he was having troubles,” Hartley says. “I thought I could help him and I think we have. We could give him a good start. He spent all his time in the military in the States here, but his job was still as bad. He was with the Old Guard, in DC, which is  in charge of burials.” (Also known as the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, the division conducts memorial affairs to honor soldiers killed in active service.)

“The gun salutes and all that type of thing, he was in charge of that. How many people did you see come back in caskets and body bags out of Iraq and Afghanistan? Very few, if any. Why? Because they made a news blackout of it. But the members of the Old Guard saw it and he was in a bad way.”

(Over 6,800 US soldiers have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Cost of War Project at Brown University).

Feeding the population is a very noble occupation”

The task of reaching all the veteran farmers across Central and Upstate New York is being led by Jamie Critelli, of Floral Beauty Greenhouses, a flower farm in Elmira. He heads the New York chapter of The Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national organization based in California. Critelli is a former Army Reserve Captain, serving in the military for eight years. He was sent to Kosovo and, later, Iraq.

“It is not enough to just have jobs; we want to have meaningful reintegration into the community,” says Critelli. “We have such a vibrant agricultural community here, where people feel a commitment to a place and that place is committed to them.”

So far, 100 local veterans have signed up to the Small Farms Program initiative’s Listserve.

“Part of my job is to push information to veterans, and to pull veterans out of the woodwork – it’s not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but Vietnam vets too. In three years’ time, I envisage a strong network in the region where any veteran farmer knows exactly where to go for advice.

“From a personal standpoint agriculture is wonderful because you get to set your own hours, you have this role that is very independent and you are doing something that is for the greater good: Feeding the population is very noble.”

Two other local institutions are also providing support for veteran farmers.  Todd McLane is Director of the TC3 Farm, which is part of the new Sustainable Farming and Food Systems degree program at Tompkins County Community College. He says out of nine new students, one is a veteran and he hopes for more. The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming assists veterans who want to get started in farming by providing training, mentoring and business incubation.

Training the next generation of Ithaca’s farmers

Dean Koyanagi, a former U.S. Marine, started Tree Gate Farm on Ithaca’s West Hill six years ago.  For the past two years he has also been serving as a farmer “mentor” at Groundswell’s Incubator Farm.

“One of the reasons we work with Groundswell is that the learning curve for farming can be pretty daunting. Particularly if you didn’t grow up on a farm. The training programs like those at TC3 and Groundswell are pretty critical for developing the next generation of US farmers.

“We are learning to be farmers as we go. Launching a farm operation is as hard as any other entrepreneurial endeavor, and we’ve had all the usual farming issues with weather, financing, equipment failures, and not enough hours in the day.”

After a greenhouse fire destroyed their spring seedlings, Tree Gate Farm’s loyal customers — including Felicia’s Atomic Lounge, Just a Taste, and the Crooked Carrot — purchased everything the farm produced so far this season. (The farm will have a robust crop in time for the Fall CSAs).

“Creating friendships with these other local food producers is one of our greatest victories,” says Koyanagi.

By the end of the summer, Dennis Hartley’s apples will finally be ripe and his orchards will be teeming with Ithacans who come to pick their own fruit.

He, his family and his workers will be jarring apple butter and pressing cider. By then, he may have a few more fellow veteran farmers sharing with him the backbreaking hard work, combined with the simple pleasure of laboring on the land.

“I get up every morning around 4:30am,” Hartley says. “I enjoy watching the sunrise. That’s my meditative thing. It’s the start of a good day, no matter what. It could be cloudy. It could be raining. Who cares? It’s the start of a new day.”

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Melissa Whitworth

Melissa Whitworth is a freelance journalist, specializing in features and profile interviews. Email her at mwhitworth@ithacavoice.com or click on the icons in the top right for more.