Aspiring farmers learn ropes from university extension class

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

LICKING, Mo. -- Traumatic brain injury caused by an improvised explosive device in northern Afghanistan ended staff Sgt. Matt Nuckolls' 10-year military career.

With two small children to support and no immediate disability payments, the Air Force veteran and his wife, Leann, decided to move from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Texas County, Mo., live off the land and become commercial farmers. The learning curve was steep.

"If you grew up around here, you knew who to talk to. I didn't grow up around here," Nuckolls said.

So Nuckolls went back to school, joining a British engineer, a retired sheet-metal worker and a nurse interested in sustainable farming in a University of Missouri Extension course for aspiring farmers.

The Grow Your Farm program is modeled after a more established counterpart called Farm Beginnings that began a decade ago in Minnesota, with offshoots expanding to Illinois and Nebraska.

Students in the inaugural Missouri program met weekly at the Phelps County Extension office in Rolla, poring over thick binders stuffed with sample business plans, legal case studies, marketing advice and more.

The program also links newcomers to established producers in their communities who can offer advice and war stories, or even mentoring relationships.

"It's kind of like parenting," said program organizer Debi Kelly. "You don't know what to do, so you go to a friend, or a sibling. It's the sharing of ideas."

For Nuckolls, the nascent pasture poultry operation -- he owns 19 barred Plymouth Rock chickens, a cold-weather bird hardy enough to withstand Ozarks winters -- represents an escape from his former life.

He's not completely unfamiliar with southern Missouri. His father was twice stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, and Nuckolls briefly attended what was then the University of Missouri-Rolla before enlisting.

His plans are modest -- the 20-acre tract he purchased last year still needs work. But the prospect of starting over, and tapping into the resources his new neighbors can offer, provides hope.

"I'm discovering opportunities I didn't know I had," he said.

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