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Tar Heel: Farmer Robert Elliott will teach his craft to fellow veterans

Robert Elliott, a Marine veteran who is a sustainable farmer, poses on his farm near Louisburg, NC, on Friday, April 1, 2016. Elliott has become known for his innovative farming methods and also for helping other veterans transition to jobs in agriculture. He farms on about 40 acres of a much larger family farm in the Justice community of Franklin County, NC.
Robert Elliott, a Marine veteran who is a sustainable farmer, poses on his farm near Louisburg, NC, on Friday, April 1, 2016. Elliott has become known for his innovative farming methods and also for helping other veterans transition to jobs in agriculture. He farms on about 40 acres of a much larger family farm in the Justice community of Franklin County, NC. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Robert Elliott sits on the porch of the stately colonial home where he grew up, a cacophony rising from roosters occasionally interrupting him as he tells the story of his evolution from Marine to free-range farmer to veterans’ advocate.

Chickens, turkeys and ducks mill about the yard, now and then making it up to the porch. Out back, pigs frolic and more chickens roost in the wood shack where Elliott says his grandfather used to make moonshine. Nearby, neatly stacked logs grow shiitake mushrooms.

Elliott, 36, started Cypress Hall Farms on part of his family’s land three years ago, creating a niche business selling free-range meat to local customers. But along the way, he became a contact person for other veterans interested in farming.

He has worked with the Wounded Warrior Project, and recently created a statewide network that helps veterans who are farmers connect and support one another. Soon, he plans to convert Cypress Hall Farms into the Veteran Farm of North Carolina, helping veterans transition to careers in agriculture.

Earlier this year, Elliott was named the state’s Innovative Young Farmer of the Year, one of several awards that have honored his farm and his work with veterans.

Martha Mobley, an extension agent for Franklin County, has known Elliott since he was a 4H student who brought home a national award. She says that since he returned to the farm, he’s been a forward-looking and active participant in a number of innovative initiatives.

In addition to his work with veterans, he’s president of the Franklin County Small Farm Association and has worked with the United Way of Franklin County and the nonprofit Feeding Franklin.

“He’s always moving forward for positive change, and he wants to help others, especially his beloved veterans,” says Mobley. “When he sets his mind to a task, he’s going to do it to the best of his ability with an open heart.”

Farming grew on him

Elliott’s family has been on the same land near Louisburg since the 1800s. The farm now spans 850 acres, though most of it is rented to other farmers.

For much of his youth, the farm was home to hogs, turkeys and tobacco crops grown by his grandfather. Later, his aunt and uncle had less success raising goats and cleaning seeds for resale.

His mother earned a teaching degree at East Carolina University before heading out to teach in Alaska, where she met Elliott’s father, an Eskimo.

Elliott spent his early years in North Carolina. He lived in Alaska with his mother for a few years as a child, but soon asked to return to the farm, moving in with his aunt and uncle when he was 9.

While he enjoyed farm life over Alaska, he had no interest in a career as a farmer.

“I watched my family go through so much heartache here that I hated it,” he says. “I thought there’s got to be something better than this out there.”

He says he disliked school and got by with middling grades. After graduation, he entered the Marines – largely under the influence of a friend who had returned from basic training looking fit and confident.

“I didn’t want to go to college and I didn’t want to stay on the farm,” Elliott says. “There weren’t a whole lot of other options.”

He says he chose the Marines because they had the sharpest uniforms, and he didn’t mind the longer boot camp compared with other branches of the military. Even then, he found that the farm boys, accustomed to early mornings and physical labor, adjusted more easily to the military routine than other recruits.

I was in the backyard with my differential equations book, and I said, ‘You know what, I really like these chickens.’

Robert L. Elliott

He worked as an aircraft mechanic based in California, Japan and Cherry Point. He left due to medical issues and found work as a military contractor doing similar work for about a decade.

In 2011, after being laid off, he earned an associate’s degree and then headed to N.C. State University to study engineering.

Elliott had earned high grades in community college, enjoying his education for the first time, but felt lost at N.C. State and failed several classes his first semester.

By then, he was living at the farm. He had bought some chickens and had written a paper on free-range chicken farming.

“I was in the backyard with my differential equations book, and I said, ‘You know what, I really like these chickens,’ ” he says. “The idea of farming was growing on me.”

Working with vets

Elliott started out with 100 chickens, and found a market for his meat at farmers markets in Rocky Mount and Wilson. He bought hogs next, and soon added turkeys and sheep, as well as mushrooms. The business has roughly doubled every year since it started.

From the beginning, all of his animals were allowed to wander freely, and were not given antibiotics or hormones. It was a way of doing things at odds with his upbringing, he says, but akin to those of his great-grandparents.

Early on, he attracted some media coverage as a veteran with a successful farming business. Immediately, the calls from veterans started coming and grew in number as more learned of his work.

He worked with a lot of individual veterans interested in farming and started doing guided hunts with the Wounded Warrior Project on his land. The more veterans he talked to, the more he became convinced that farming was a perfect fit for many of them.

The way he sees it, even veterans who don’t go through the trauma of combat get used to a way of life that poorly equips them for desk and factory jobs.

“You can go into the military and never see a day of combat,” he says. “It still changes you.”

He started working with the North Carolina arm of RAFI, Rural Advancement Foundation International, which invited him to give a talk on veterans and farming. The transcripts made the rounds on the Internet, raising the profile of his efforts.

He got involved with the national Farmer Veteran Coalition and formed the Veteran Farmer Network of NC. With funding help from RAFI, he will soon open the Veteran Farm of North Carolina.

Modeled after a similar effort in Florida, the farm will provide three years of on-site training for veterans as they transition to a farming career – learning farming skills, finances and marketing.

He hopes to franchise the model in other states. Up to nine veterans at a time will live in his farmhouse, and he will devote 10 acres of land to get it started.

“Over time it seemed more like my calling is to help veterans than it is to farm,” he says.

He says the goals are both economic and social – providing a viable career while also re-creating the brotherhood so many veterans sorely miss.

“It works out because we’re all back together again,” he says. “It’s like the camaraderie never left.”

Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week? Contact us at tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Robert L. Elliott

Born: June 1979, Honolulu

Residence: Louisburg

Career: Owner, Cypress Hall Farms; founder, Farmer Network of North Carolina and Veteran Farm of North Carolina

Awards: Honoree, Farm Credit 100 Fresh Perspectives, March 2016; Innovative Young Farmer of the Year, Farm Credit Associations of NC, 2016; Farmer Hero, Farm Aid, 2014

Education: A.A. science, Nash Community College; studied engineering at N.C. State University

Fun Fact: The mascot of Cypress Hall Farms is Pete, a large and flamboyant turkey that is not overly friendly, particularly with women.

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