Military Veterans in Agriculture Find Support Through Operation Grow

by Ann Chambliss

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. — When David Keener retired after serving 21 years in the United States Army, he and his wife, Amber, left their life in Oahu, Hawaii, in search of a new place to call home. Their search for a place to raise their family and begin a new career proved to be daunting. However, after much prayer and a little help from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Operation Grow program, the Keeners and their children now own and operate Bare Bottom Farms in Arab, Alabama.

Overcoming Obstacles

Transitioning from a military to civilian lifestyle proved to be a great obstacle for the Keeners. When David retired from the Schofield Barracks in 2022, it was during the peak of the housing crisis and there was a bidding war on everything. While trying to find a home in their price range and a new career at the same time, David said he turned to prayer.

“I am not much of a prayer, but I found myself praying to find a job and somewhere to raise my family,” David Keener said. “I just wanted my children to grow up on a farm where they had to be responsible for a life other than their own.”

David said he prayed that if God would provide him with a job to get a farm, he would put in the effort to make it work. The next day, David heard from a friend who gave him an internship in Huntsville, Alabama. The same week, David and Amber purchased their home and farm in Arab. Now that they had it all, the Keeners had to figure out how to make the farm work.

Help from Alabama Extension

The Keeners have six children, five of which live and work on the farm. Their farm’s slogan is Veteran Owned, Family Operated and Kid Approved. However, to get their farm started, the Keener family will admit that they had a few things to learn.

Because they weren’t from Alabama, Amber Keener said they had to learn about the soil, what plants grow in the state, how to run a business and what it takes to market their products in Alabama. To help with this, the Keeners turned to their local Extension office and started attending Beginning Farmer classes. This is where they met Kira Sims, the Alabama Extension coordinator for Cullman County, who introduced them to the Operation Grow program.

“Some families like the Keeners have farmed before, but moving to Alabama changes the growing environment they are used to,” Sims said. “So, they look to Alabama Extension for information on how to adapt their growing systems to address the challenges farmers face in the Southeast.”

Operation Grow works to help veterans better overcome the barriers they face after military life. Through this program, Alabama Extension — in partnership with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries — provides special emphasis on the training needs of military veterans interested in agriculture for health and employment benefits.

“Serving and supporting veterans after transitioning into a civilian lifestyle is such an honor,” said Harli Willis, Operation Grow’s project coordinator. “Our work is to help provide veterans with the resources, training and support to begin farming and provide for their families.”

A Wealth of Knowledge

Sims helped the Keeners research potential cost-share programs and grants through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. This helped them secure much-needed funding, making it possible to purchase a high tunnel and water resources. Amber Keener said their farm would not have been successful if not for Alabama Extension and the resources that helped get them started.

“Through Extension’s Operation Grow, we gained a wealth of knowledge,” Amber Keener said. “The biggest thing we learned was networking and connecting with other farmers. Connecting with them to gain knowledge and bounce ideas around was very important and lead us to connecting with other military veterans.”

David and Amber are not the only Keeners that have benefited from a relationship with Alabama Extension. The Keener children have also taken the opportunity to get involved with Alabama 4-H, so they can learn and grow — just like their parents.

Discover Alabama Extension

Helping military veterans as they start new business and career ventures is just one of the many ways Alabama Extension delivers solutions for life’s everyday challenges.

“Everything from pest control to pond management, Extension can help you,” Amber Keener said.

Extension educators are strong community partners, bringing practical ways to support homes, farms, people and communities.