Seeds. That is where this journey begins. Just like his dad, Fredie Manes always wanted to grow something… vegetables, fruits, flowers… anything and everything. “I started when I was in the fourth grade. My dad always had a huge garden,” explained Manes. “I begged him for a little place to plant something. So, dad tilled up a spot, and gave me some potato and green bean seeds.” From that small patch of land, Manes’ love of agriculture grew.
Throughout high school Manes worked with his dad in their large garden in southwest Missouri. “I always wanted to be a farmer but, when you are 18 years old and fresh out of high school, buying land doesn’t seem like an option, I didn’t really have any experience farming other than gardening.”
Fast forward several years, Fredie enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, which meant he traveled extensively. “I guess you could say that my service as a Marine allowed me to have incredible experiences; I tell folks I’ve probably traveled the world, at least three times,” smiled Manes. As an infantry marine, Manes was based and spent time in San Diego, California North Carolina, Puerto Rico, and a tour at Marine headquarters in Washington, DC. He was deployed oversees multiple times and, ultimately, finished his 21-year career in Hawaii.
During those years the awe and amazement of working in the soil, gardening and agriculture never left him. “I have a life-long subscription to the magazine Organic Gardening by Rodele Press and I would read it cover to cover every month,” recalled Manes. Over the years Fredie, his wife Patti along with their two daughters, experimented with growing a wide variety of produce and flowers.
The Manes’ retired to Louisiana (where Patti grew up) and planted a huge home garden. “We were growing so much produce, that people would ask if they could buy fresh vegetables from us,” Manes explained. “Eventually, I realized that farming would be a viable business for us.”
As the operation grew, the Manes decided to focus on growing lettuce and a variety of greens. Coincidentally, that also happened to be the same year that a cold snap hit Louisiana and within the span of a few months two plantings were destroyed by temperatures that dipped into the 20’s.
NRCS to the rescue! Manes reached out to the Calcasieu Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and his local USDA service center in Leesville to learn more about the technical and financial assistance available. Adam Malcomb, an Army veteran and Soil Conservationist in DeRidder and the veteran special emphasis program manager for NRCS Louisiana explains, “When Fredie came into our office we discussed several options. After a site visit, installing high tunnels was the clear answer.”
Manes cannot say enough good things about this growing technique, “The high tunnels have been a life saver for me, being able to keep the rain and weather off of the crops is a huge help.” In fact, Manes says that if it hadn’t been for NRCS and the Calcasieu Soil and Water Conservation District, “I wouldn’t be growing produce at this level, and I wouldn’t be in business.” He goes on to say, “I think high tunnels are worth three times what they cost because it allows us to have a longer growing season.” The high tunnels also protect the soil and crops from erosion. “We are always fighting erosion, so the high tunnels also help us keep top soil in place,” said Manes.
Manes has two high tunnels through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Veteran Farmer and Rancher (VFR) provision in the Farm Bill. The 2018 Farm Bill has special provisions for veterans interested in farming and ranching. Sarah Trichel, NRCS State Program Specialist, explains, “The 2018 Farm Bill expanded the definition of a Veteran Farmer and Rancher (VFR) to include those who have been discharged for up to 10 years.” This expansion of the definition of a veteran farmer/rancher opens-up a new group of veterans that previously were not eligible for VFR status.
Malcomb echoes the importance of the expanded definition of a VFR, “It’s good to see veterans interested in farming and agriculture as a profitable job and way of life.” Malcomb continues, “For a lot of veterans, it is hard to reacclimate to civilian life; farming gives them an option to participate in their communities as much or as little as they like. A farming lifestyle is typically a really good fit for veterans because they are used to getting up early, putting in long hours, and working hard,” explained Malcomb.
Manes is a self-proclaimed “market gardener” traveling to farmer’s markets around the region. You can easily tell he loves every minute. “I enjoy talking and connecting with my customers,” he beams. Not only is Manes a producer, he is also the manager of the Alexandria Farmers Market, operated by the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (CLEDA). This fall his crop will include tomatoes (grown from seed), all types of greens and lettuce. Spinach and kale, “If it’s green, we’re going to grow it”, laughed Manes.
“All of the hard work is worth it when you go outside to witness seeds coming up from what you’ve planted,” Manes reflected. “To me that is the miracle …watching the plant bud, leaf out, and take off from seed. It’s like poetry, it’s that kind of a feeling for me.”
“I would encourage any veteran who is thinking about starting out in farming to contact their local SWCD and USDA office,” said Manes. “The application process is not difficult, and the staff is so helpful and they work with you through every stage of the process.”
If you would like more information about NRCS and programs for veterans contact your local SWCD and USDA service center or visit www.la.nrcs.usda.gov