How One Tennessee Veteran Went From the Army to Agriculture

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veteran farmers

Veteran Charley Jordan now operates Circle J Ranch; Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Four years ago, Charley Jordan was sitting at his desk at Fort Campbell, where he was serving as an Army aviator and battalion operations officer, when he suddenly felt the impulse to share his love of farming with veterans.

“All I knew at the time was that farming made me happy,” says Jordan, 48, owner of Circle J Ranch in Woodlawn. “I saw how I would be gone on a deployment and as soon as I would come home, it was just amazing the feeling I got from going out and seeing my cows again. I was thinking to myself, ‘How could this benefit other veterans?’ ”

Jordan, an outdoorsy kid who grew up near Pensacola Beach, Florida, had learned about farming the hard way. He was 10 when he was exposed to agriculture for the first time after moving with his grandfather, an Army recruiter who had adopted him, to South Dakota and befriending a few farmers’ kids. Jordan’s family returned to Florida two years later, but the peaceful feeling he got when he thought about those farmlands never went away. “And after that, I just always had the desire to become a farmer,” he says.

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Despite his newfound passion, following in his relatives’ military footsteps seemed like the right thing to do. So in 1989 he joined the Army. Then in 2001, he acquired a V.A. loan and bought an overgrown 5-acre plot of land in Montgomery County, along with a few cows and horses for his stepdaughter to rope and ride while practicing her rodeo tricks. Between deployments, Jordan added a few cows and chickens. When the roping steers grew too big, he processed the beef and sold it.

veteran farmers

Circle J Ranch; Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

By 2008, he was ready to expand, so he purchased six Texas Longhorn calves and taught himself how to farm by reading inexpensive books and taking classes at his county’s University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service.

“No one really told me how in the world I was going to get my cows from my barn to my back pasture when I had no way of doing it other than a rope,” Jordan recalls. “It was quite hilarious.”

Today, he owns 25 acres, 18 Hereford and Texas Longhorns, and “about 25 hens that seem to be just dead set on eating me out of house and home.” In 2017, he added raised plots of tomatoes, eggplants and cabbage, along with pollinator gardens with zinnias and other wildflowers, which he cuts fresh and donates to local businesses “just to make their offices looks happy.”

veteran farmers

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Joining the Farmer Veteran Coalition

After Jordan’s 2014 epiphany, he began researching options online and discovered the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), billed as the nation’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans and active duty members start careers in agriculture. The next year, he attended an FVC conference in California.

“As soon as I walked into this place in Sacramento,” he says, “I just felt that immediate connection.”

On the long flight home, Jordan jotted down notes, which he used as a launching point for a workshop he hosted in Clarksville in 2016. He planned for about 20 people. Ninety-six showed up.

“I had bought lunch out of my own pocket … so everybody was really good sports about it and shared,” he says. “It just sparked something in me. I saw a purpose there, that I could maybe give something back … and that agriculture was the way that I could do it.”

Jordan also signed up for Homegrown by Heroes (HBH), an FVC marketing program that helps veteran and active duty farmers by drawing attention to their products. The all-natural freezer beef he sells in his Circle J store bears the HBH label.

“It really points you out in a crowd of many that, ‘Hey, look, I still want to serve the people of America and to provide a product that was produced from the heart.’ ”

veteran farmers

Charley Jordan spent 27 years as an Army soldier. Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

A Different Kind of Service

Jordan has become even more involved since he retired in 2017. He gives speeches and presentations, has formed a state FVC chapter and serves as the veteran representative for UT’s Beginning Farmer Outreach Program, the national AgrAbility Project for farmers with disabilities, the Tennessee Fruit and Vegetable Association Board, and other groups.

He also regularly welcomes budding farmers, some in wheelchairs, to his farm. “I show them my mistakes and what works for me,” he says.

Military experience is a plus when running a farm, Jordan says. “Leadership, discipline, respect, honor, selfless service, perseverance – all those things are great qualities for a farmer. I’ve lost stuff to storms. I’ve lost entire tomato crops. I’ve lost cows, and lots of money on things that didn’t work out. But I can’t just quit.”

All the public interaction has drawn Jordan out of his shell. “I am shy, but I’m very passionate about this,” he says. “If you turn on the light switch with me as far as talking about farmer veterans, agriculture, my chickens and cows, I’ll wear you out for the entire day.”

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