Sara Creech runs a small organic farm in Hendricks County, but just ten minutes away the retired Air Force nurse is on a mission to raise an unlikely crop: New farmers.
Her focus is on training and educating military veterans interested in learning more about the business, including those struggling with the transition to civilian life and others lacking the resources or knowledge to even know where to start.
Creech nurtures that new crop of potential farmers at Porter Farm, a hands-on working farm she and a friend established on six acres near Danville. The training ranges from casual introductory get-togethers, such as tours and picnics, to quarterly topic-specific seminars to long-term programs.
“The hope is it’s a safe place vets can try out farming without a lot of financial vulnerability,” said Creech, who also helped organize the state chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition.
The coalition is a national organization offering free help to veterans who want to put the unique skills and character from their military service into meaningful agricultural careers. About 200,000 people transition out of the military each year, the coalition’s executive director Jeanette Lombardo said, and some struggle to return to a normal civilian life.
Creech acknowledges her own troubles when she first transitioned away from the military.
“It’s just kind of stifling to find that purpose and meaning again,” she said. “I’ve been finding that vets who are involved in farming or agriculture — it does not have to be large scale, something as simple as growing in your back yard or having a few chickens — these are things that can really help connect vets again to something that feels so lost.”
Creech’s winding route to growing farmers in Indiana began in Florida where she and her husband, Chuck, an Air Force pilot, were stationed in the mid-2000s. Doctors diagnosed Chuck with colon cancer when he was 34. It was then that the couple began looking into alternative treatments and researching the food system.
They began eating healthier and that led them to discover the power of nutrition and that the right food can improve health.
“We had never been to a farmers market,” Creech said, “We were talking to famers, visiting farms and it really changed our relationship with food and we found out that how food is grown is as important as what we eat.”
Chuck died a year after his diagnosis. The devastating loss left the widow, armed with her new knowledge and views on food, trying to figure out what to do with her life.
“I needed to get away from all the stress and sadness and so I ended up moving to Indiana,” she said. “I just wanted to run away from everything and be out in the middle of nowhere again.”
The move brought Creech closer to her sister, who was living in the state at the time. She ended up buying a piece of land, now called Blue Yonder Organic Farm, about 40 miles west of Indianapolis in North Salem.
There was never a question about going organic and growing as sustainably and diversified as possible, she said. The personal experiences with her husband and the training and reading she had done all resonated with her and solidified that organic bent.
“I wanted to be part of healing,” Creech said, “while at the same time producing healthy food for myself and the community.”
Initially, just like some of the veterans she now works with, Creech didn’t know where to begin. She just started working on small projects on the land.
She planted an orchard because she knew those trees would take years to grow and produce. After a year or so, she bought a few chickens. Then came some bottle-fed lambs. She started growing vegetables.
As time passed, she fell in love with the farm. But Creech was still working full-time in Indianapolis as a nurse. The job and trying to build up a farm just became too much. She decided to dive into farming full-time.
That’s when she discovered Armed to Farm, an organization geared toward assisting military veterans interested in sustainable agriculture. A little apprehensively, she drove out to Arkansas and spent a week touring farms and connecting with 30 other veterans with the same interest. She came back even more inspired.
“There was amazing power in that room when we were all together talking about our military history and what we were interested in,” she said.
Creech held on to that power and brought it back to Indiana where she began her work with Farmer Veteran Coalition.
Then a unique opportunity arose.
Raising Porter Farm
Harold and Esther Porter had operated a small farm near Danville for years. Esther was a local teacher and Harold was a U.S. Army veteran who had served on the European Front during WWII. As they got older, the Porter’s wanted to make sure the land was used for something special.
Esther died in 2001 and, when Harold died in 2014, the six-acre farm was passed on to a family friend.
The new owner knew Creech from local agricultural events and made the property available to her to start a hands-on training center for veterans struggling with the transition back into civilian life.
In honor of the former owners, it now is named Porter Farm.
The project receives financial support from Hendricks County Soil and Water Conservation District with the Clean Water Indiana Program established through the Indiana State Department of Agriculture to provide grants for landowners and conservation groups, and the Indiana chapter of Farmer Veteran Coalition.
Porter Farm is still evolving, but offers a variety of events and programs.
Because Indiana is a convenient, central meeting place for veterans across the country, Porter Farm hosts picnics and social events for those vets to come visit and meet each other.
Sara also offers quarterly training programs where vets can learn about topics such as growing pollinator gardens, small- or large-scale vegetable production, shitake mushroom farming, and a variety of other topics.
And just last year, Porter Farm began its first three-year veteran training program. Steve Gaddis is the first tenant, pupil and farmer.
Learning the ropes
A U.S. Army vet who spent three years in Kuwait in the mid ’90s, Gaddis’ agriculture roots go back to his family’s 380-acre timber farm. About 20 years ago, his dad decided to start tapping some maple trees. Together they experimented making syrup over a wood-fire stove.
He remembers meeting Creech for the first time while he was working at the parts department of farm equipment in Danville. It was shortly after she moved to Indiana. She walked in wearing flannel pajama pants and rubber boots, he remembers, and asked if the store rented equipment.
Creech was new to farming and wasn’t quite sure what she needed to do, or what equipment she needed to get started. Gaddis, who lived about an hour from Creech’s farm, offered to help her get set up and the two have been connected since.
Eventually, Gaddis decided he wanted to move to a full-scale farm. In 2021 he secured an internship through the USDA’s AgrAbility program, which assists those with disabilities, to fund a year of on-the-job learning at Porter Farm.
As part of that program, he is now running the day-to-day farming operation — and learning.
Porter Farm’s unassuming driveway is flanked by raised beds filled with leafy greens, broccoli and fennel and a kiosk showing off Gaddis’ maples syrup, house plants and a selection of the produce grown on the farm.
Behind the main home beyond the raised beds, a small herd of sheep blat as they graze around outbuildings, including chicken coops and a hoop house where more vegetables are growing. When he is tending these various duties, he’s keeping an eye on the drive as passing customers pull in and ask about the produce.
There’s a small patch of sweet corn next to the hoop house where he tries his hand at some innovative techniques. He doesn’t till the area and has found himself fighting against weeds cropping up, so he’s laid down natural barriers: crimson and buckwheat.
“There’s all kinds of ‘Creeping Charlie’ and morning glory, which is a vine, and it’ll wind up on everything, so it’s just taking away nutrients from the soil and it’s competing with your crop,” Gaddis said. “So, the crimson and buckwheat don’t compete with the corn because they’re actually replacing the nutrients.”
He does much of this work by hand, and it is extra work, but it leads to healthier soil and a healthier biodiversity. He also grows flowers on the barriers to help repel insects.
And the corn, it’s delicious, Gaddis said. He picks it right from the stalk and eats it raw.
“It’s so much sweeter,” he said. “Blanching corn is the worst thing you can do to it because you’re pulling all the sugar out.”
He pulls carrots or cucumbers from the hoop house, too, and eats those as he works. He doesn’t mind a little residual dirt.
“I ate more sand over in Kuwait,” he said. “We had three or four sandstorms over there. It was just miserable.”
Gaddis said the experience he is getting at Porter Farm is helping him find a path forward. He’s currently on the lookout for property nearby to start his own small farm.
Life in the military, especially for those stationed in a foreign land far from what is familiar, can be tough, said Lombardo of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Even tougher, she said, can be coming back to civilian life, away from the routines that have directed a person’s life for years.
Lombardo said the skill set a military culture develops fits in well with the rural farming setting.
“When you join the service, you go through bootcamp and learn how to act as team. You’re in charge of equipment and people in life-or-death situations,” Lombardo said. “When you exit that, there’s a huge, overwhelming feeling of isolation and abandonment. You have to reinvent yourself.”
That’s where some veterans can get stuck, she said. Trying to find what’s next, trying to find a new purpose or mission.
Farmer Veteran Coalition is there to help, Lombardo said, at least those interested in agriculture. The organization provides a range of services, from helping vets find jobs in the ag sector to assistance starting farming or ranching operations.
“We have a lot of people from across the country who are looking for what our vets have to help their business,” Lombardo said.
The coalition is growing exponentially, she said, with a third of its 36,000 members joining in just the last two years — likely due to the pandemic.
Having faced her own troubles getting back to civilian life, Creech said she’s committed to using Porter Farm to help make the switch easier for others who’ve served their country.
“There’s something special about planting something, taking care of it, watching it grow and knowing that it will nourish you or your family,” she said.
“There’s something special about it and it’s definitely something I’ve found to be very healing.”
More about Porter Farm
Visit Porter Farm’s drive-up store at 4680 W US Highway 36.
Creech and Gaddis can often be found at local farmers markets from Avon to Carmel.
More information about the Farmer Veterans Coalition can be found on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason