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Harvest of Gratitude | Spring 2015 Out Here Magazine

Former soldier Terrell Spencer found healing in his faith, family, friends, and farm; now, he's on a mission to help other veterans succeed

Terrell Spencer with his family
Terrell and Carla Spencer's children, and farm helpers, are Simeon, left, Silas, and baby Gwen.
Out Here

By Carol Davis

Photography by Mark Mosrie

Terrell Spencer remembers the day that everything changed for one of his farm employees, a returning veteran of the Iraq war who feared that all he could do successfully was to be a soldier.

"We were working on this steep hillside, installing electric fencing, and he said, 'The only thing I've ever been good at is killing,'" Spencer recalls.

Spencer decided to prove him otherwise, as the two built corner posts and installed fencing wire.

"I showed him a few times and let him do one all by himself. Then, I told him, 'Now, there are two things that you're good at,'" Spencer says. "And for the first time, he saw that he could do something different."

Spencer, or "Spence," as his friends call him, knew how to interact with his troubled employee because he'd been there himself. Also a military veteran of the Iraq war, Spence once endured a crippling case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and all that goes with it: explosive anger, loneliness, emotional issues, and flashbacks.

But with the help of his faith, family, friends, and farm, Spencer has conquered most of his post-war trials and is living the life he wants — as a loving husband to Carla, father to three happy children, and a hardworking farmer with too many chores to count.

Now, his mission is to help other war veterans find where they belong.

Building A Farm

Any given day will find Spencer moving chicken pens on his pasture, gathering eggs, tending to pastured turkeys, checking on goats and hogs, or taking broilers to be processed and then delivering freshly processed chicken to a half-dozen or so local restaurants that he supplies. Or he may be selling at a farmers market, fixing fences, building animal housing, bookkeeping, and updating his social media pages.

Terrell moving one of his poultry pens
After his chickens have dined on pasture grass and suitably fertilized the space, Spencer moves his poultry pens individually by strapping on a rope and using his strong back to pull them several feet to fresh grass. This method has resulted in healthier chickens and lush pastures.

He raises 10,000 broiler chickens, 200 laying chickens, turkeys, a herd of meat goats, and a small, but growing, herd of hogs on Across the Creek Farm in the Boston Mountains near West Fork, Ark., just south of Fayetteville. Spencer manages about 20 acres of good grass pasture for his chickens and 15 acres of mountainous brush land for his goats and hogs. He plans to expand both his property and livestock this year.

Interestingly, Spencer's desire to farm didn't originate from his Arkansas roots, but rather from his convoy escorts and patrols in Iraq. As a machine gunner on a Humvee, he would often sit alone up in his gun hatch, and one day, while waiting outside of a military base, Spencer remembers watching as the local farmers and their children tended their crops, oblivious to the violence and instability that surrounded them.

"It was really peaceful," he says. "It kind of stuck with me."

When he returned home after his tour of duty, Spencer, who had in the meantime married Carla, began college for a degree in soil and water science, which led to his interest in sustainable agriculture.

Subsequently, he decided that his livestock would consume non-GMO feed, which means that it is not genetically modified, and that he would rely on his chickens to naturally fertilize his lush fields.

"Everything we do is non-GMO," Spencer says. "It's a nice step between conventional and organic; I would have to double my prices if we went organic."

As their farm began to take shape, the Spencers planted gardens, bought land, and started a flock of 30 chickens. Across the Creek Farm became a reality in 2007.

Spencer was hired by ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, as a poultry specialist, which linked him in to other farmers, poultry specialists, sustainable growers, and perhaps most fortuitously, the Farmer Veteran Coalition.

Terrell delivering a box to a local restaurant
Spencer delivers freshly-processed chicken to The Farmer’s Table, one of a half-dozen Fayetteville restaurants that he supplies.

A Sense of Purpose

Michael O'Gorman, a leading organic farmer for more than 40 years, founded the Farmer Veteran Coalition in 2009 to cultivate a new generation of farmers and create viable, meaningful employment for veterans who have served their country.

Studies revealed a disproportionate number of small-town residents going into the military during the Iraq and Afghan wars. Unfortunately, there aren't an overwhelming number of employment options for these veterans when they return home, O'Gorman says.

"They go in a country boy, they come out a country boy, like Terrell," O'Gorman says. "He would not have done well moving to a city and he would have not done well in an office or corporate setting."

Other studies indicated that 25 percent of veterans were direct heirs to a farm and 25 percent had never been on a farm.

It was that remaining middle 50 percent that caught O'Gorman's attention as he was starting the Farmer Veteran Coalition. They were the ones who were most likely one generation off from farming; for example, their grandfather farmed but their father didn't, or they spent summers working on an uncle's farm.

"They're close to it; they know what it feels like and smells like," O'Gorman says. "They have a sense about it, but they don't have land, and they're anxious to find out how they can bring farming back into their farming lineage."

Farming also gives these mission-driven individuals a sense of purpose, he says.

"There's just something that is solid enough about it that it feels as important as (defending) the country," he says. "Feeding it feels as equally important as defending it."

Terrell, surrounded by chickens, carrying two buckets of feed
Spencer feeds his pasture-raised chickens, including these layers, non-GMO feed, which means that it is not genetically modified. "Everything we do is non-GMO," he says. "It’s a nice step between conventional and organic. I would have to double my prices if we went organic."

Life Lessons

When Spencer hires veterans to work on his farm, they usually receive much more than lessons in farming.

His farm is a sanctuary for many of the troubled vets he hires, Spencer says. In his animals and in physical work, they can find a sense of purpose. In Spencer, they find a confidant.

"Guys can say stuff to me and not freak me out," he says. "It's almost like a therapy session; they can open up and they don't have to explain who they are or what they feel."

And when they express that they want what he has — a family, meaningful work, and contentment — Spencer emphasizes the possibilities.

"I tell them, 'Man, if I did it, then anybody can do it. This is obtainable,'" he says. "If they want the kind of life we have, it's possible, no matter where they're starting from. It's not easy, but it's doable."

Spencer credits his church, The Community, with imparting that belief in himself.

"When I was messed up in the head, they just didn't believe that it was permanent," Spencer says. "They didn't see me as a lost cause and as time went on, I realized the only guy who saw me as damaged goods was me."

Spencer also shares his knowledge and encouragement by mentoring both locally and long distance; working with ATTRA; teaching at workshops around the country; doing webinars; and hosting workshops that draw veterans and others from across the nation.

Terrell's hat with the Farmer Veteran Coalition logo
Spencer is highly active in the Farmer Veteran Coalition, helping war veterans learn farming so they can find or create viable, meaningful employment.

The Farmer Veteran Coalition and the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which also is dedicated to helping veterans, have supplied travel expenses for veterans to attend workshops.

Spencer, in turn, offers his workshops at no charge. That's because when he needed help, others gave freely to him.

"When I got back, I had some difficulties," he says. "After I was diagnosed with PTSD, I really needed help and I had people from our church and from the local farming community who really filled in that gap and kind of mentored me … and no one paid them."

The Farmer Vet Coalition reached out to him and gave him a small grant from the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

"That meant a lot to me (to have) these folks who came in and helped me without taking anything," Spencer says.

O'Gorman also has been a significant mentor to him.

"I've called Michael multiple times whenever I felt beat up on by the farm business. He'll laugh and tell me about a time that was much worse in his farming career," Spencer says. "It kind of like normalizes it and puts it in perspective."

"It's like he has a 30,000-foot view of the situation," Spencer says, "and he's got a really good heart."

The admiration is mutual; O'Gorman appreciates Spencer's dedication to his fellow veterans.

"Terrell's a gifted young man," O'Gorman says. "What Terrell's able to do is pretty exceptional, in that he's taken that calling really beyond himself."

Spencer sees it as simply a way to honor those who helped him through his PTSD and other issues.

"In any war, you're causing pain, people go hungry, lives are destroyed. That's what war is. But when you farm, you're feeding people or supporting their families," Spencer says.

"Now you're sowing good in your family and your community."

Carol Davis is editor of Out Here.


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