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Serving: East

Veteran focuses on microgreens as business venture

A Marine returns to his roots and draws on his background in farming.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories highlighting the Farmer Veteran Coalition and its 2021 Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund grant awardees.

Microwaved dinners were part of a normal diet for James “Scott” Stewart growing up. His mom freely admits she wasn’t the best cook. When homemade meatloaf made it to the dinner table, it was more of a punishment than a pleasure, recalls a chuckling Stewart, a Marine veteran who grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania.

But where there are shortcomings, it often beckons a remedy.

Stewart learned the quality of seed on the farm with his grandparents, and he joined FFA in high school where he became an officer. He began watching food programming on TV, reading and was actively involved in helping his FFA chapter develop and build an aquaponic system in 1988 — completed in 1991 — where Tilapia fish were used in a closed system to also grow lettuce.

High school graduation led to a series of events, including four years in the Marine Corps as a cook. While in the military, Stewart visited many countries, including Israel, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Japan, Spain and France, where he learned more about food.

After honorably serving his country from 1993 to 1997, Stewart returned home and served as a Pennsylvania and New York state firefighter from 1993 to 2016, until the lingering effects from a disabling car crash forced him to retire. Since then, he’s also had a stroke.

But despite the twists and turns in life, Stewart and his wife, Sandra, and daughters Victoria, 21, and Veronica, 18, are taking a new but familiar direction, embarking on a journey growing microgreens, lettuce and herbs for markets in Pennsylvania, New York and potentially beyond.

Last year, they got a little boost through a $1,000 grant from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, offering service members assistance in advancing in the agricultural industry.

Now in its 11th year, FVC’s Fellowship Fund has granted more than $3.5 million in support of 800-plus military veterans pursuing careers in agriculture. As one of FVC’s core programs, it helps beginning farmers and ranchers with what’s often their greatest hurdle — access to startup capital.

In 2021, FVC funded hot ticket items such as greenhouses and grow tents, walk-in coolers and cold storage units, milking systems, water filtrations, and honey extractors.

Startup

The car crash left Stewart in a coma for six months and resulted in a traumatic brain injury that affects his day-to-day living. “One of the things about me is that I'm stubborn — when I came out of that coma, I wanted to find a way back into the workplace,” he says. “With my military training, I decided to utilize my cooking skills.”

He worked in a couple of restaurants, but in December 2019, he went back to his roots and started Stewart Microgreens, based on his home property in Elmira, N.Y.

Today, he’s pulling from what he learned in high school and in watching and helping his grandparents grow crops. With the FVC grant, he received growing trays, lighting, seeds and building supplies. As with many new business ventures, it often starts off small. He’s growing product on his property.

Through his own savings and support from a GoFundMe account (started after his crash) and various family members, he’s in the process of building a homemade, year-round greenhouse using ancient techniques from the Amish, where he’s sourcing his wood.  

Stewart, who is located along the Pennsylvania border, has many food distributors nearby that he’s trying to reach. The goal is to grow the business, providing a local, fresh, quality product that can be used year-round.

“I’d like to get large enough to provide employment for veterans just coming out of the military and people who are disabled,” he says. “People with disabilities are sometimes overlooked because people don’t think they can do the job. When in reality, we want to do it, we just don't have the tools or find the resources to enable us.”

Stewart’s marketing plan is still in the works, balancing increased production with outreach to local restaurants, nursing homes, schools, colleges and hospitals.

“We believe in growing nutrient-dense food using intensive organic practices, allowing us to sustainably produce food in an environmentally, socially and economically just manner,” he says.

Stewart plans on applying for another FVC grant this year. FVC anticipates raising $500,000 to give out in grant money in 2022. The application period is now open through Feb. 14.

To apply visit: https://farmvetco.org/fvfellowship.
 

TAGS: Crops
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