Calera farmer helps fellow veterans in need

By SCOTT MIMS / Staff Writer 

CALERA — A Calera veteran and entrepreneur who is currently a graduate student at Samford University was awarded two prestigious memberships to cohorts this year, through which he is helping fellow veterans.

Pat Johnson owns and operates a farm in south Calera where he grows blueberries, pumpkins and produces honey from honeybee hives on the property. He plans to manufacture and sell honey, fruit-based moonshine and small batch whiskey, among other things, by 2021.

In October, Johnson will fly to Philadelphia to participate in a residency program, Veterans and Military Families—St. Joseph’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans—Cohort V, where he will compete in a pitch competition on business entrepreneurship for his farm to address veterans in agriculture and food insecurity in Shelby County.

“Veterans Farming Initiative (VFI) is a self-funded, for-profit pilot farming project,” Johnson said. “I’m using my experience with farming, community engagement, and non-profit administration to navigate the hurdles of a startup agribusiness in order to create a self-sustainable farm in Calera, provide for my family, all while continuing to assist veterans in need through agribusiness development.”

VFI, which spans only 3 acres and straddles the Shelby/Chilton County line, is considered a “micro-farm,” Johnson said. Currently, he is preparing for the fall pumpkin harvest, the upcoming spring blueberry crop and honey he will sell locally to generate income for the following year.

Meanwhile, honeybee hives on the property will help with pollination of both current and future crops as well as give Johnson the opportunity to produce local, raw honey in a collaborative effort with Stacy and Ben VanDortrecht with SandB Apiaries of Elmore, Alabama.

“Stacy and Ben are master beekeepers and also my beekeeping mentors on the VFI conservation apiary,” Johnson explained.

He said Veterans Farming Initiative was not started with the intention of participating in the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV) cohort. When Johnson established the pilot program in July 2019, he started to seek out opportunities for growth and development for the farm when he heard about the program from previous participants.

“Essentially, I am using the program to speed up the process of bringing the farm project fully online and operational,” Johnson said. “The project is approximately 35-percent complete. During the residency process, I will gain support, assistance, skills, knowledge and other resources from successful entrepreneurs, military veteran service members and CEOs from across the country in order to help me fulfill the needs of my fledgling business that can potentially lead to other positive outcomes for VFI. At the end of the residency, participants in the program can gain opportunities for continued support and investment in a project like mine through a 5-minute pitch event to highlight the participants projects/businesses.”

Johnson was also selected for The Mission Continues—Service Leadership Corps, a cohort based out of St. Louis, Missouri. This will afford him the opportunity to work with underserved communities in Shelby County, specifically his native Montevallo. He will be flying to Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta for residency over the course of six months and bringing that knowledge and training back to Shelby County.

Johnson previously completed a fellowship with The Mission Continues in 2015, when he volunteered more than 2,000 hours working with the Greater Birmingham Area Habitat for Humanity, building and rehabbing urban homes as part of the Birmingham Revitalization Project.

“The non-profit organization Homeless Veterans Initiative of Alabama was established as a continuing service goal from the first fellowship that I completed in 2015, Johnson said. “Sadly, the organization had to close Jan. 1, 2020, due to lack of participation, funding and support. However, I was blessed with a baby girl to occupy my time. I am happy to say that the non-profit operated for three years assisting over 500 at-risk and homeless veterans and their families and provided varying levels of support all over the Southeast with the help of some amazing people, like one of my most dedicated volunteers Pauline Halbrook of Jasper, Alabama, and Kathy Sanborn of Nauvoo, Alabama.”

When Johnson heard about the opportunity to serve with the Service Leadership Corps (SLC), he applied in late 2019 and was selected out of 30 veterans to participate in the cohort.

“This cohort is very exciting because it has an emphasis on addressing food insecurity in under-served communities,” he said. “My goal is to collaborate with organizations around the state to provide support to my local community food banks in order to curve the effects of poverty and hunger.”

The SLC cohort will run through February 2021.

 

More about Johnson

Johnson was a Gunner’s Mate in the U.S. Navy from 2004-2009 and was deployed twice, once as a weapons technician attached to the USS Thomas S. Gates in support of the Global War on Terrorism, and again with Joint Task Force—Naval Expeditionary Guard Battalion to Camp Delta Guantanamo. He ended his career having achieved the rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class, serving as a Naval Special Warfare Armorer with Special Boat Team-22.

Johnson is a 2004 graduate of Montevallo High School, a 2012 graduate of the University of Montevallo with a Bachelor of Science in social science, and is currently attending Samford University as a graduate student pursuing a Master’s of Science in K12 collaborative special education. He was hired as a temp to teach special education at Calera Intermediate.