Vonita Murray, a disabled U.S. Navy veteran, has faced a host of challenges in establishing and running her farming operation — Mariposa Valley Farm in Woodland.
But the prize of packing baby purple carrots grown on the farm into her 8-year-old daughter’s lunch pail for school, along with the pride and discipline of a hardened servicewoman, is enough to keep her determined to continue.
Thankfully, the Davis-based Farmer Veteran Coalition has made Murray’s farm a possibility. The local nonprofit, which was formed to secure viable futures in agriculture for vets, assisted her with the cost of essential supplies and farming equipment.
Murray, who injured her wrist during her 1994-96 service, has struggled in performing the physically demanding labors of farming. She said she has been well-accommodated by the supportive local agricultural community.
“I’ve met a lot of cool people, and they’re all just a phone call or email away,” she said. “It’s a great community; everyone wants to help each other. It’s a lot like the military was; you’re never isolated, and you’ve always got others to confront challenges with you.”
Murray grew up on a small plot of land in Colorado. Despite her familiarity with rurality, Murray only recently turned to a farming career. She was laid off from an architecture job in 2009, and decided picking up a plow was preferable to returning to a desk.
Two years ago, Murray acquired a lease from a friend for six acres of farmland that had gone untouched for 20 years. While she quickly learned basics — planting seeds and using farming tools — she found herself requiring more guidance over time.
That education came through enrollment in the California Farm Academy, a six-month training program and farm business incubator offered though the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters.
“The class was great,” Murray said. “It taught little tricks to farm more efficiently. When you have no experience with it, you haven’t grown up with it and have no education in it — you’re doing everything as wrong as possible.”
Murray took that knowledge and has since experimented on her own plot of land. Mariposa Valley Farm’s fields now grow a diverse range of seasonal vegetable crops; everything from Ukrainian eggplant to African horned cucumbers.
The farm’s most recent yield was heirloom peppers — black Hungarian peppers, yellow stuffing peppers and a purple jalapeño variance. Murray supplies her produce to two restaurants in Sacramento — Capitol Garage and The Porch.
“I’ve gotten the resources that I needed, I’ve gotten the classes I needed, I’ve got restaurants that are willing to wait for me and a land owner that lets me do just about anything,” Murray said. “I’ve been lucky. I’m not sure everyone has those same opportunities.”
Murray admits the Mariposa Valley Farm has not made a profit thus far, but believes these beginning years of farming have given her the know-how to be successful in 2013.
She said it can be an expensive lesson, one that takes 365 days to remedy, but the mistakes she makes on crops are a means of improvement. This mentality, she added, is one she attained through her service in the Navy.
“If anything goes wrong, it just means I’ve learned something,” Murray said. “I think you learn that you have to shake things off, instead of being discouraged, and find another way. That serves you in life, as well as farming.”
Another perk of her military background, she explained, is that the hard work and organization associated with becoming a farmer came naturally to her.
“Being in the military, you learn ‘stick-to-itiveness,’ just doing things until they’re done,” Murray said. “I think that really helps. You can already have that personality going into the military, but it definitely enforces those tools.”
The entrance Murray made into agriculture is indicative of a slowly growing field of servicewomen who are turning to the occupation. About one in five veteran farmers who receive start-up grants from the Farmer Veteran Coalitions are women.
Murray said she encourages both men and women returning from service to consider raising crops for a living.