Tour highlights successes of Southwestern Pennsylvania's military veterans turned farmers
Pennsylvania Adjutant General Anthony Carrelli took one swig of the chocolate-banana milk, and his eyes lit up.
“I would have never thought — banana milk,” he said.
Carrelli kept the 16-ounce bottle close by for the rest of his tour of Pleasant Lane Farms near Pleasant Unity on Wednesday morning.
Carrelli’s visit to the dairy farm was part of a daylong tour of veteran-owned agribusinesses in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The tour, organized by the Pennsylvania Veteran Farming Project , was meant to highlight military veterans who have successfully made the transition to civilian life by operating farms and other agriculture-related businesses.
“We wanted to make the general more aware of veteran farmers,” said Mimi Thomas-Brooker, coordinator of the PA Veteran Farming Project. “There’s no typical veteran farmer.”
Pleasant Lane was Carrelli’s only Westmoreland County stop. He also visited Bridgeside Market in Sewickley and Forever Heart Farm in Moon.
Carrelli, who oversees the Pennsylvania National Guard and the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs , said the military way of life and the farming way of life have a lot in common.
“It’s a natural fit,” he said. “There’s a lot of ties with the military, as far as getting up early in the morning, having a disciplined work ethic, (that) makes it prime for the farm industry.”
Carrelli said his department uses the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show in January to sign up veterans for various benefits. “We see more veterans at that farm show than we sign up in another three or four months,” he said.
But Carrelli also wants to draw attention to private-sector efforts that are addressing the needs of veterans.
“A lot of this is about shining a spotlight on it so that people understand where their veterans are in their community and what types of things we can do for them,” he said.
Pleasant Lane Farms was founded by Marine Corps veteran Ralph Frye Jr. in 1976 as a dairy operation. A producer for Turner Dairy Farms in Penn Hills, Pleasant Lane averages 22,000 pounds of milk per cow per year.
Following a tour in Vietnam, Frye took a series of manufacturing jobs until he returned to the family farm in Unity. He now farms the 184 acres with his sons, Todd, Jason and Chad, who have helped expand the operation into beekeeping, beef cattle and hogs.
Todd Frye, 42, enlisted in the Air Force in 1995 as a way to get off the farm, and now he divides his time between the Pennsylvania National Guard and Pleasant Lane Farms.
“I run my military career from the way I was raised on the farm. I work tirelessly until the end. I always make sure the job’s done,” he said.
Jason Frye, 44, said a robotic milking facility and a cheese facility are in the planning stages, which could increase the number of milking cows from the current 44 to 54 or 64. Cheese production will give the farm a profit margin that it currently doesn’t have with liquid milk, he said.
In addition to Wednesday’s visit by Carrelli, Pleasant Lane Farms participated in the 2017 PA Veteran Farm Trail — a tour of veteran-owned farms organized by the PA Veteran Farming Project.
The project is a not-for-profit communications hub for veteran farmers and, through its Troops to Tractors project, connects veterans with educational benefits, agriculture apprenticeships and other resources.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, email@example.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.