LOS OSOS — After leaving the Air Force in 2012 with a service-connected disability, Robert Barnett was looking for a new career when he fell into farming by accident by gardening at his family’s home in Ventura, even though “it was years before I could grow something,” he recalled.
About five years ago, he decided his niche would be to raise sheep for meat production, and while they were growing to graze in areas where fire abatement was needed. Because of the costs involved in raising livestock, he at first raised vegetables and then ducks, but earlier this year, Barnett and two partners took the plunge and bought a small starter herd of St. Croix sheep, a heritage low-input breed that thrives on grazing and doesn’t require extensive feeding, along with two rare heritage Mulefoot hogs.
“We’ve been doing it nickel and dime, mostly me,” he said of the small operation in Los Osos in San Luis Obispo County. “We find junk equipment and spruce them up and make them do.”
But thanks to a Farmer Veteran Coalition grant funded by Farm Credit, Barnett now has badly needed new equipment to manage and care for his growing flock of sheep and pigs. The $5,000 paid for two solar-powered portable electric fencing systems to corral the sheep in areas where they’re grazing and another system for hogs, along with other needed supplies for lambing and farrowing, hoof trimming and other miscellaneous tools.
“This grant is such a relief for me so we can get the essential equipment to make our operations work,” Barnett said. “I still work part-time and go to school on the GI Bill as well, so I’m cobbling things together.”
Keith Hesterberg, President and CEO of Fresno Madera Farm Credit, said helping veterans transition into farming is why Farm Credit supports the Davis-based Farmer Veteran Coalition.
“Since its founding in 2008, the Farmer Veteran Coalition has worked tirelessly to enable American veterans to pursue careers in farming,” Hesterberg said. “Its Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund is a small grant program that provides direct assistance to veterans like Robert Barnett, who are in their beginning years of farming and ranching. The funds are given directly to third-party vendors for items the veteran has identified will make a crucial difference in the launch of their farm business, and Farm Credit is proud to be able to help individuals who have served in our armed forces build a new life in agriculture.”
Besides Fresno Madera Farm Credit, other California Farm Credit organizations supporting the Farmer Veteran Coalition are American AgCredit, Co-Bank, Colusa-Glenn Farm Credit Services, Farm Credit West, Golden State Farm Credit and Yosemite Farm Credit.
Barnett operates the startup hog, sheep, and tree nursery operations at an existing ancient grains and beans farm known as Kandarian Organic Farms. Slow food chapters on the Central Coast and local chefs are eager to promote the farm’s meats once they’re ready to begin selling animals. That’s coming along as well, as his initial small flock of eight sheep has grown to 17 this year, with more lambs on the way. The hogs have not yet produced any piglets.
And for Barnett, raising livestock is more than just a way to earn a living. Being with the animals also gives him personal comfort as he continues to recover from a horrific accident while an Air Force aircraft maintenance specialist. He was doused with jet fuel while working under an engine when another airman accidentally flipped a switch, which caused a painful nerve and joint condition and some mental challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m service-disabled, so I can’t go from zero to 60 in 10 seconds. It takes me 30 seconds or a minute. So I’m really at peace with the livestock and working with them,” he said.