- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Ryan Sullivan is a member of the South Dakota Air National Guard in Sioux Falls. When he’s not deployed with his unit, the Mitchell-native is working to build his small-scale farm in eastern Wisconsin.

The business has become a family endeavor and a way of life.

Having put in 19 years in the military, Sullivan’s family knows what it is to pitch in when a soldier is away. His wife, Jackie, helps around the farm when he is with his Guard unit for a few weeks each summer and for about a month in the winter.

Sullivan, 38, spent four years in active duty and was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base. He’s done three tours in Iraq - the first started six days after he got married.

“It was right into the fire for Jackie being a military spouse,” Sullivan said.

He joined the South Dakota Air National Guard in 2004 and has been in the active reserves ever since.

“We made a big change when we moved here and bought the farm,” Sullivan said over the phone from Wisconsin. He plans to stay in the Guard for another few years.

The Sullivans have a daughter, Alaina, who will be 5 in August, and a son, Bennett, who is almost 3. His wife is a physical therapist, but the farm is a full-time job for him.

Sullivan talked about how important it is for his family to be behind the farming operation, the Tri-State Neighbor (http://bit.ly/1KEJQSk ) reported.

“It really has to shift to being a way of life,” he said. “It’s too much time and effort not to be a part of family life.”

That holistic approach to farm life was something Sullivan learned through a training program called Farm Beginnings. The 10-session program put on by Dakota Rural Action is meant to prepare those interested in farming for a new business venture.

Dakota Rural Action program administrator Eowyn Corral said the idea is that people leave the course with more than just the hope of taking up farming. They walk away with a business plan, having discussed how important it is to make business decisions with the entire family in mind because it all has to do with quality of life.

Most people who go through the Farm Beginnings course aim to make a living on 200 acres or less. Some plan to keep things smaller, raising food on 10 acres or less.

“The idea is that you don’t need a ton of capital or land or equipment to get into true food production farming,” Corral said.

Just starting his farm, Sullivan already is finding out how much work farming can be - even when it’s on a small scale.

“It’s always a challenge to build things but keep it simple,” he said.

A year and a half ago, he and his wife bought five acres north of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The place used to be a small dairy, but it had gone bankrupt. The size was right for the Sullivans, though, and it was near his wife’s parents.

Neither she nor her husband grew up on a farm. Sullivan was raised outside of Mitchell. They got interested in farming, he said, after watching food documentaries and learning about “all the things you can’t pronounce” that are in processed foods today.

They were living in Sioux Falls at the time and decided they wanted to garden and raise chickens. Then they heard about the Farm Beginnings program that was being offered on the eastern side of the state that year. “We knew that we wanted to get into this,” Sullivan said.

Most of the sessions in the Farm Beginnings course are taught by farmers themselves. Sullivan said it was helpful to hear from people who are farming day to day.

Most helpful, he said, was how they prepare a person to think about things from a business aspect. “You have to turn some sort of a profit to be sustainable,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s just an expensive hobby.”

Now the Sullivans are in their second year of raising meat rabbits, meat birds and egg layers in addition to growing vegetables.

Dakota Rural Action organizes the Farm Beginnings course each year. The latest course, which started last fall in Rapid City, is just wrapping up. Participants are getting hands-on experience with a three-month session on a farm that matches their interests.

The program is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Dakota Rural Action is in the process of renewing grant funding, but Corral said the plan is to offer Farm Beginnings this fall, returning to the eastern side of the state.

Sullivan was one of the first veterans to participate in Farm Beginnings. Since then, the Farmer Veteran Coalition has joined Dakota Rural Action to support veterans such as Sullivan who want to transition to a career in agriculture by providing scholarships. At least seven veterans have gone through the program so far.

Sullivan is finding support in other programs offered through the Farmer Veteran Coalition. The nationwide coalition aims to connect veterans and careers in agriculture. In its mission, the coalition supports the idea that producing food offers veterans opportunities and a sense of purpose, as well as physical and psychological benefits.

Through the coalition, Sullivan applied for a fellowship grant that will help him buy poultry processing equipment, “which will be a huge, huge improvement for us,” he said.

There is a lot to do around the Sullivan farm. He has been upgrading the fence so they soon can start raising grass-fed lambs. They started small with animals that weren’t a huge investment and gave a quick return, and now they’re ready to deal with bigger animals.

The Sullivans also grow vegetables, and they’ve started an orchard of fruit and nut trees. They started putting up a 20-foot-by-24-foot hoop house last year, and they’re adding a 30-foot-by-48-foot house this season. Those will extend the growing season for the 11 raised beds, which measure 16 feet by 4 feet.

All the work is worth it to Sullivan. “I love it,” he said. “I knew what I was getting into. The reality hits you that it’s not an eight-hour-a-day job.”

The Sullivans are looking forward to growing their business with a farmers market that’s just a half-mile from their farm, in Francis Creek, Wisconsin. The town of about 700 people started a farmers market just last month, while Manitowoc has a well-established market.

Sullivan said he is content to start small and watch his career and his family grow along with their farm.

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