Charley Jordan is the Owner and Operator of Circle J Ranch, LLC which is a veteran-owned small farm in Middle Tennessee specializing in all natural freezer beef, vegetables, and farm fresh egg sales. Charley served in the US Army on active duty for 28 years and retired as a CW4 in 2017. Charley is an Adjunct Assistant Professor for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a consultant for the University of Tennessee Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and the leader of the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Tennessee organizing committee.
Usually, give an intro giving you a few reason to listen... not doing that this time Just listen to it. One of my favorite episodes, can’t imagine a job more different than my own, but also can’t imagine a single career path that wouldn’t benefit from hearing Charley’s story.
- StoryBox - People trust each other more than advertising. StoryBox provides the tools and supports businesses need to take the best things customers say about them, and use them to drive more sales and referrals. StoryBox offers a 10% discount to companies employing veterans of the US Armed Forces.
- Audible is offering one FREE audio book to Beyond the Uniform listeners. You can claim this offer here, and see a list of books recommended by my guests at BeyondTheUniform.io/books
- Homegrown by Heroes - branding and marketing for Veterans and their farms. It tells your customers that this product was produced by a Veteran farmer with all the care and everything that goes with it.
- Farmer Veteran Coalition - started in 2008 by Michael Gorman, who had 40 years of agriculture experience. He started a movement of Veterans that grew from 5 Veterans and their families.
- Circle J Ranch TM - facebook & Instagram
- Farmer Verteran COalition of Tennessee on Facebook
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today from Clarksville Tennessee is Charley Jordan. Charley is the owner and operator of the Circle J Ranch LLC which is a veteran owned small farm in Middle Tennessee. They specialize in all natural beef and egg sales. Charlie served in the Army for 28 years and retired as a Chief Warrant Officer in 2017. He is an adjunct professor at Embry Riddle University and a consultant at the University of Tennessee in their farmer and rancher development program.
How did the beginnings of Circle J come about?
I don’t have a farming background. i got interested in farming when I was a kid in the 80’s. My grandfather was in the military so I moved with him to Sioux Falls, SD. I had lots of friends that were farming kids so it just kind of stuck with me from hanging around with them. After my grandfather’s tour was up, we moved back to Florida where there wasn’t too much agriculture. I joined the Army in 1989 and had the chance to come back to Fort Campbell in 2001. When I came back I decided to buy a small farm. In 2002, I bought some horses for the farm. We were in a traveling rodeo at the time. My step-daughter was a rodeo kid. She moved on and we got rid of the horses and I decided to try this thing with cattle. Then it came to processing the cows and selling the meat. In 2009, I decided to get more serious about it and bought some Texas Longhorns and heifers. I started building a niche market for customers wanting all-natural beef. I also had chickens which are the starting point for any farmer. In 2010, I purchased 20 more acres of land. I put my cattle herd out there. In 2014, I started looking more at the Farmer Veteran Coalition as something I wanted to be a part of and pursue after I retired.
What is the range of money someone would need to have set aside to buy land and start with a few small animals?
Getting started in agriculture costs money, bottom line. When I first started looking into buying land, I was stationed in Korea. I came home for a two week break and looked at some land in Tennessee. I looked at over 30 properties and the one I ended up buying was the final property I looked at. I was trying to figure out how I could use a VA loan to buy a farm which I eventually did. Over the years, starting in 2002, I’ve slowly grown the farm. The biggest thing that helped me finance the farm was my deployment schedule. During my deployments, I was able to save my deployment and TDY money and then ultimately put it toward the farm.
There are resources - for one the VA loan - to help you finance the purchase of a farm. The Farm Service Agency also helps with different loans. I tell everyone that if you want to go out and buy 100 acres, get ready for the money it’s going to cost to support it. I say start small. On just one acre, you can grow hundreds of pounds of vegetables. So start small and make sure it's something you want to stick with.
I really like that idea of starting small. I think that’s a great idea to keep in mind regardless of what industry you want to get into.
Yeah, the biggest thing is to educate yourself. I preach that now - go get an education on what you want to do. If you want to sell poultry or eggs, go research what that’s going to take. Chickens will out eat your budget pretty quickly so you have to be prepared for that. Same with cattle. I learned about cattle after I bought a herd of Texas Longhorns. It’s an interesting thing because once I put the Longhorns inside my barn, I had to figure out how to feed them and take care of them. The other thing was figuring out how I was going to get them out of my barn and to the pasture. Just learning - I learned everything by books. I would go the discount bookstore and buy a book on raising chicken or cattle. I would read it on a deployment or when I had some time off. Things break on a farm so I’ve learned to weld. It’s not pretty but they hold. And that was something I learned when I had to go buy a welder. And I’ve learned how to take care of the farming equipment. Here in Tennessee, there’s an agricultural tax exemption so I get a bit of a tax break for that. Today with the internet, there’s so many resources out there to help yourself learn.
That’s great advice because I think that can apply to any career path. i really admire the tenacity you had to go out and make this happen for yourself even while deployed.
I went out and started looking at retirement in 2015 and what I wanted to do. I was an aviator by trade but I really didn’t want to go back into the cockpit. I love aviation but I just didn't’ want to fly anymore. So I looked at agriculture as my way. I started educating myself more on farming. A lot of soldiers come out of the military have a lot of heavy equipment experience and leadership experience so I counsel them on how they can transition into farming.
When I was approaching retirement, I went to every transition assistance program I could. I went through every seminar and I learned that agriculture is not a common industry for veterans to go into. After I retired, I realized I had enough skills to move forward with my farm and also counsel other veterans on how they could get into farming.
What is Circle J Ranch today?
It’s a small veteran-owned farm. It’s on 25 acres and handshake lease with a couple neighbors of mine to use some of their land. I started working with horticulture vegetables last year. I do a lot of raised bed gardens and hydroponics. I’m also experimenting with different greenhouse designs. I try to build everything on a small budget. What I try to do is give an example to other farmer veterans that you don’t have to be rich to do this. You can use the materials you have around you. My freezer beef operation I’ve been doing since the beginning. We process about 2-3 cows per year so I have a very niche market. I don’t use any antibiotics, GMOs, or hormones. I raise the cows for the amount of time that I think is appropriate and then process and sell them.
For my vegetables, they’re all raised naturally on my farm. Last year I was really into peppers, tomatoes, and greens. I also do shiitake mushrooms and oak logs. I maintain about 20 logs. I sell those at a variety of prices depending on many I have. For my farm fresh eggs, I harvest them every day.
What does your day-to-day look like?
I just retired last summer so this whole thing of having my own schedule is new. For 28 years I had someone making a schedule for me. Now, I have to come up with my own schedule. So it’s an interesting question because I haven’t quite figured it out yet. This is my only job other than teaching classes online so when I wake up in the morning, i honestly have to sit there and make a conscious effort to figure out what i’m going to do for the day. There’s’ not a lot of farming that goes on in the winter. So during the winter, I usually rise and shine and have a good cup of coffee. I’ll check up on the lettuce and cabbage that I’m growing. I check my seedlings for the spring that I’ve already planted. I also check outside to make sure the chickens are all there. I then update my social media accounts with information from the farm. From there, I go out and feed the cows. Sometimes I need to fix part of the fences. It’s interesting to go to this from having a rigid schedule everyday.
Could you have done this without a military retirement?
I could have but it would have been different. I know I have a little bit more of an advantage than someone coming out of the military without a retirement. But I think I would have gotten into it anyway regardless of when I had gotten out. When I was active duty, it really calmed me down after a stressful day at work. I knew it would make me feel better to see my cows or put my hands in the dirt. Once I went out to see my chickens and just be on my farm, all the stress went away.
It was so valuable that you had that really clear goal to work toward. I would imagine that gave more purpose to the edges of your military career.
Even though you might only be in the military for a few years, you can still have a goal at the end of that. So take advantage of any program that you can while you’re in the service so you can go ahead and refine that goal. The worst thing to see is military members retiring or getting out of the military and not having any goals set. That’s not helpful in life. You can always change your goal but always have a goal to work towards.
You talked about organizations like Homegrown by Heroes and the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Could you talk a little bit more about these?
When I decided to get more involved with Veterans Agriculture, I was looking for something that was bigger than just a local movement. I went searching on the internet and started looking for an organization for veteran farmers. The first thing I found was Farmer Veteran Coalition. It was started in 2008 by Michael Gorman. He started a coalition of veteran farmers. As I started researching more and became a member, I saw some really cool programs that they were doing. One of them was a program called Homegrown by Heroes which was originally started by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. Farmer Veteran Coalition then partnered with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. So any veteran farmer can create branding on their products that tells customers that they are a veteran farmer.
After that I started getting involved with other organizations. In 2015, I went to Sacramento for a conference put on by the Farmers Veterans Coalition. I was really inspired by that. During the flight back I wrote down all different things I wanted to do on my farm and by the time I landed I had a page and a half of notes. In 2016, I decided to have my own veteran farmer workshop. So I spent a couple months putting that together with vendors and speakers and it was free for active duty and veterans. I was hoping to have 20 people show up. When we opened the doors, it was 98 people.. I never would have imagined that. The local mayor showed up and local government representatives. So after that I started partnering up with the Tennessee Agrability Project. It helps disabled farmers continue farming. That’s both veterans and civilian farmers. I also partnered with the University of Tennessee where I’m a consultant with their rancher program. That gives me a chance to get out and speak to farmers and let them know about these programs. Then we come back around the the Farmer Veteran Coalition and have been actively building a Tennessee chapter. This will allow me to help pay for travel expenses and conference fees to allow veteran farmers to attend conferences and get information.
I really admire how you’ve taken resources that were helpful to you and have helped grow and expand them for other veterans.
The thing about this business is you just have to get yourself out there. I’m naturally a shy guy and a lot of veterans are. A lot of veterans want to work for themselves when they get out of the military. But in order to do that you have to get yourself out there and sell your product. If you want to have a hobby farm that will be just for your family, that’s awesome. But if you’re looking for something more than that, you have to get yourself out there. Use social media, the Homegrown Hero label, and other advertising to get your product out there.
That’s fantastic because I think putting yourself out there is something a lot of veterans struggle with and it seems like you’ve overcome that.
In order to be a farmer, you have to have an entrepreneurial spirit. Yes, I love it. But you don’t want to burn yourself out either. So you have to have that spirit that you want to build this thing that’s going to be yours for a long time. One technique that has worked well for me at farmers markets is that my uniform is a kilt and a farm t-shirt and boots. And what I’ll do is I take my farm grown flowers and hand them out to the ladies that are there. In my experience the women are shoppers, they like to browse. And sure enough, they come over and buy from me.
I love that you go that extra step. I know I respond to that too - when I see someone that goes the extra mile.
It’s marketing at its core. We’re lucky to be part of the University of Tennessee's Agriculture Extension. The program shows farmers how to market themselves and put their product out there in a way that they will be able to make money.
Do you have any last things you’d like to share with our listeners?
Go into whatever you’re doing with everything you’ve got. You’re only going to be as successful as you want to be. Go into it like you want to be rich or the greatest person at what you’re doing. if you’re not successful right of the bat, don’t give up. Keep going. The military gave us a lot of traits like perseverance, determination, leadership. Use those to your advantage. So just keep going and don’t give up.
Thanks so much Charlie. Where can people find you online?