For about eight years, Carla and Terrell Spencer have been successfully growing their farming operations in the Boston Mountains near West Fork, Arkansas. Theirs is a story of struggle, and ultimately, success. Hiland Naturals spoke with “Spence” about his work with the Farmer Veteran Coalition, being a parent, and his stance on GMOs.
Hiland Naturals: You spent nine years in the Army and Army Reserves, you’re a veteran of the Iraq war. What made you decide to become a farmer?
Spence: We were on a patrol and I was machine gunner up in the gun turrets sticking out the top of a Hum-V. We were outside of a base called Balad, we’d come in off of as mission and we were waiting to get into the base right next to these fields. I just watched this Iraqi family doing their farm work in the fields and it seemed really peaceful—not like a war zone. That kind of just stuck with me.
When we got back I started school up again, got a degree, but had PTSD as a result of the war. The VA didn’t help me at all. They diagnosed me and then told me I had to pay for treatment. I was feeling out of control and ended up getting some chickens; it went from 30 hens to a couple hundred laying hens and about 10,000 broilers a year.
We tried it out small scale, and it was something I really enjoyed. Clearing land was great therapy. Now it’s a thriving business.
HN: You’ve been awarded a Bob Woodruff Farming Fellowship by the Farmer Veteran Coalition and you are always partnering with them. Tell us a bit about that.
Spence: I actually had to drop out of my Master’s Program after I had completed all of my coursework while I was working on my thesis. I did a year as a water scientist and then took a job with ATTRA—I was the poultry guy there and was farming part time. I quit two, two and a half years ago or so and just went full time into farming. A lot of it was, although I was farming quite a bit then, but if I’m telling people how to do it, I should be willing to do it myself. It was kind of me putting my money where my mouth was, and it turns out I knew what I was talking about. I’m not going to tell people things that I’m not doing myself.
One of the things ATTRA was interested in when I worked there was partnering with the FVC, and one of their first workshops was on my farm. I had been banged up on my tour and they reached out to help. Later on they helped me get a four wheeler at a point when I had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (a very serious condition caused by ticks) and didn’t have any employees on the farm, but I still had thousands of chickens on pasture I had to move. The farm would have gone under without that and they lent me the money to take out the loan.
I care a lot about the FVC and I work as a farm mentor, do workshops, and find donors and funding for projects to give back to that organization. The FVC has around 4,000 vets who are interested in or currently farming, and they are the folks who can get the word out to the community. Hiland Naturals is partnering with them now and I’m glad to see Bill is bringing that back.
HN: Checking out the Across The Creek Farm Facebook page, I think I’ve seen as many pictures of the human kids as the ones of the animal variety. How do the little people in your life participate in the farm work.
Spence: We have lots of pictures of cute kids during the winter while there isn’t a ton going on. You’ll see a bunch more pictures of chickens come summer.
Right now it’s more fun for the kids than anything else. They tag along with Dad if I’m moving equipment or they ride along with me on the four wheeler if I’m going to check on the goats—that kind of thing. They’re really at an age where they can do a lot more damage. They can help with herding hens in when we move them. With the eggs, they can get a little enthusiastic, so everything’s done with supervision.
We live in, essentially a national park almost, so they get to run around and be kids catching frogs and salamanders, and that’s really the joy of it.
HN: You have a ton of great experience. Do you encourage people to focus on sustainable farming practices?
Spence: I really think the way that we do things is a good way to do it—great for entry level farming. It’s getting harder and harder to get involved with farming because land prices that were $1,000 an acre ten years ago are now $10,000. That’s pretty typical everywhere. There is a lot of foreign companies buying up American farmland. It’s not even that you’re competing with locals, you’re competing with foreign speculators. We’ve seen a pretty big decline in infrastructure because farming has become “what’s bigger is better”. You don’t have processors or packaging centers or all the infrastructure that used to serve small farmers is gone, and if you’re going to be successful you have to rebuild it and be good at about thirty different things.
HN: What’s your best piece of advice for someone who wants to be a backyard farmer to feed their family?
Spence: It would be to start off slow, really make sure it’s what you want to do, and also, don’t quit your day job. There’s a pretty huge learning curve.
If you’re real serious about it—and not everyone can do this—do an internship or find someone to work for. Any time you can get mentorship or learn on someone else’s dollar, that’s the way to do it.
HN: At Hiland Naturals, we really stand apart from other brands because of our dedication to GMO-free feed. Why is GMO-free food important to you?
Spence: I think these guys who think that randomly messing with thousands of years of things working to make money aren’t so smart. There are really so many reasons. One of those is independence. When you look at a lot of the GMO stuff the approach has been, you prove it’s not safe. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. I think they need to prove that it is safe. It shouldn’t be up to me to disprove. The biggest thing ultimately is that I like to work within the bounds of nature. I kind of feel like GMOs are just being lazy. I feel like big corporations don’t know where to stop when profit is involved; they’re even genetically modifying humans. That’s happening now. It’s a faith thing for us as well because we value people.
Spence really said it all; it’s about valuing people. At Hiland Naturals, we also value people, which is why providing true-to-nature products is what we do. It’s about health. It’s about happiness. It’s about farming in a way that benefits us all. Check out the goings on at the Across The Creek Farm Facebook page, and visit Farmer Veteran Coalition to learn how you can help to mobilize veterans to feed America.