By Amanda Dolasinski, The Fayetteville Observer
As Ed Spence was growing up in Harnett County, he dreamed of nothing more than escaping his family's farm.
It was hard work and he'd had enough.
So at 18, he joined the Marine Corps.
He left the farm to fight in Vietnam and Desert Storm. After 24 years, he retired as a master gunnery sergeant.
Spence's life came full circle in 2010 when he decided to start his own farm to establish a sustainable career.
"I didn't know about soil or crop insurance," said Spence, who is 61. "I'm a small farmer. I knew nothing."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which seeks veterans to start their own farms and ranches, provided Spence with the resources and classes he needed to launch his own farm in Spring Lake. A partnership between the USDA and the Department of Defense has expanded to ensure service members know there are loans, grants, training and technical assistance for careers in agriculture.
The partnership aims to reach 200,000 transitioning service members across the country every year.
Since 2009, the USDA has provided $438 million in farm loans to help more than 6,400 veterans purchase farmland and equipment and make repairs or upgrades. Microloans - for small- or niche-type farms - have provided more than $22 million for about 1,000 veterans across the country, according to the USDA.
In North Carolina, the USDA has distributed more than $1.2 million in direct farm loans to veterans so far this year.
Veterans in Cumberland County can get help at the Cumberland County Cooperative Extension office. Officials there say it's not uncommon to see retired soldiers stop at the office before considering a career in agriculture.
"So much of what people learn about agriculture, they learn on the Internet or YouTube," said Lisa Childers, county extension director. "But being able to get that hands-on experience helps that person be a lot more successful in agriculture."
Krysta Harden, USDA deputy secretary, said she has noticed an uptick in the number of veterans who consider starting farms.
"That is something we hope continues," she said. "Fort Bragg is sitting in some of the richest, most wonderful farmland in the country. We hope that it'd be a popular field for many folks at Fort Bragg to think about."
Military members develop skills ideal for farming. They are self-motivated, hard-working and service-oriented, she said.
An increase in the farm industry has several benefits, Harden said.
It ensures sustainable food, which is coupled with the farm-to-table trend of people's interest in where their food comes from.
Another benefit is the therapeutic aspect of farming, she said.
"Frankly, the land heals," Harden said. "For those who are coming out with physical or emotional problems, something about being on the land - starting at a seed and watching it grow - is very therapeutic."
It's a healing power that Spence said he has felt over the past five years as he and his wife, Sheila, cleared their property and planted their first seeds. A typical day begins around 2 a.m. and ends around 9 p.m.
"This is a kind of therapy for me," Spence said. "This is my therapy from war pain."
The farm started as a small garden. The family experimented with different crops and identified which part of the land they would grow best.
They didn't earn a profit until this year, their fifth year with the farm, Spence said.
Since he receives retirement benefits from the military, it was feasible, he said. He understands the career can be tough for farmers who solely rely on profits from farming, and cautions new farmers to start small.
Spence said he was one of the first farmers in the state to receive the USDA's microloan. He would have started a farm without the loan, but it helped him purchase expensive equipment, he said.
The family grows a variety of vegetables and fruits, including strawberries, blackberries, cabbage, kale, butternut squash and sweet potatoes, on about 3 acres that includes two green houses. They sell the produce from their farm off Lillington Highway, but also take it to local markets during the week.
Small pens in the back of the farm house the family's goats, chickens and cows, which they plan to raise for their own consumption.
"There's always something growing," Spence said. "We don't want it to be a hobby anymore. We want to be sustainable. We want to make a living out of it."