FLOYD, NY — Poet William Matthews wrote, “What matters is that a soldier has a sword of dazzling finish, of the keenest edge, and finest temper, if he has never learned the art of fence.” In today’s farming vernacular, learning the art of fence stimulates livestock management, insures safety, protects water quality, produces local food and saves money for those who have the passion to build their own.
Army veteran, beginning farmer and financial advisor, John Slifka, had this desire after acquiring a small acreage to start a multi-species operation with his wife, Josephine and family, aptly named Three Sister’s Farm for their generations of women in the family and to pay homage to the Iroquois people.
“With part of the Three Sisters Farm’s objective to raise a variety of livestock, pasture fencing is essential. Still, it is not only critical to get the right kind of fencing installed, it was equally important to get fencing installed the right way. It’s one thing to watch YouTube videos and read instructional manuals, and quite another to buy materials, get them home and realize, Uh-Oh: how does this all come together,” lamented Slifka.
As coincidence would have it, John would meet Troy Bishopp, Oneida County farmer and Madison County’s Soil and Water Conservation grazing specialist and resident fence building instructor at an Armed to Farm sanctioned training workshop in the county a year earlier. “I’ve found that veterans are a hands-on bunch and want to get in the field and do practical stuff,” said Bishopp, a Sons of the American Legion member. “When John called and invited me to his farm, I was honored to give my time to a veteran and see how I could help.”
This personal help came with a caveat: Put on a fence building workshop/fence-raising with other interested veteran farmers in similar situations. With the help of Melissa Oles, Membership Coordinator for the Farmer Veteran Coalition of New York, Dean Koyanagi from The Cornell Small Farms Program, Madison County SWCD, The Upper Susquehanna Coalition, William’s Fence Company, Stewarts Shops and Lee Newspapers the event came together for 20 American veterans.
On the scarce sunny day in June, Bishopp brought the district’s post pounder and fellow veterans made child’s play of John’s used treated posts by slamming them in the ground around a 7-acre field using the hydraulic ram. The “grass whisperer” showed all the aspects of using the equipment safely and keeping the posts straight. “Pounding posts is an art in itself. The key is using high quality posts like southern yellow pine, large locust and cedar posts that resist rot which complement the 30-year hi-tensile fence components. Building a fence should be a one and done exercise when installed right,” emphasized Bishopp.
With the posts securely installed, the group got a lesson in geometry and learned a variety of ways to build strong, high tensile fence braces. “Don’t scrimp on the quality and size of the brace rail,” said Bishopp. “There’s a lot of compression with the brace wires and fence pulling, so if you want it to last, I wouldn’t have any qualms to over-build this portion.”
He demonstrated the importance of lengthening the rails to lessen the brace wire angle, which affects the uplift on the end and corner posts, especially if they are not in 3 to 4 feet in the ground.
After lunch and some time to network about resources for veterans, the group learned about hanging gates and went about rolling out the woven wire for tightening. The tool of the day was the 4-foot stretcher bar and its five metal wedge design, which has improved the way traditional stretcher bars work. The bar, placed vertically and with wedges locked into the fence, made it easy to place the wire in the center of the bar and pull it tight anywhere on the fence with John’s tractor. “It’s the best thing I’ve seen today,” said army vet, Cody Curtis.
With the fence tight, everyone pitched in to staple the wire to the posts and voila; the fence could hold the Slifka’s future animals. “These are skills that will directly impact my farm,” said Tom Price, beef farmer and army veteran from Valatie, NY. Hands-on trainings are the best.”
“Our workshop was a mixture of questions to Troy, hands-on corner and brace setting, pounding posts, and pulling fence etc., all under Troy’s watchful eye. We needed the knowledge and guidance Troy shared on our farm,” said a grateful Slifka. “I don’t know of any new or even established farmer that wouldn’t have benefited from what Troy shared.”
“This is where we cannot thank the Madison County Soil & Water Conservation District enough,” said Slifka. “For our workshop, they graciously provided the expertise and experienced instruction through the Agriculture Environmental Management Program and Upper Susquehanna Coalition for Troy to teach, but also generously contributed a post pounder and other equipment to build our fence. Yet, what made our workshop especially meaningful was we were blessed with the company of fellow veterans having similar goals and dreams as ours. My view may be prejudiced. However, I cannot imagine a better group of impassioned farmers as prior-service military. I strongly recommend and will support similar workshops for both veterans and non-veterans alike.”
“I am so appreciative of Melissa Oles of the Farmer/Veteran Coalition (with support from Dean Koyanagi of the Cornell Small Farms), too. Melissa was mission essential, coordinating so much of the logistics for the workshop. Thinking about it, the fencing workshop couldn’t have happened without the efforts of many supporters and each of the veterans who attended, said John. It was a memorable and inspiring day”.
To learn more about Veteran Farmer workshops visit www.farmvetco.org or contact Oles at 845-532-6768.