Swords To Plowshares: Navy Veteran Jason Heitman On Founding Saratoga Springs’ Green Jeans Market Farm

Shortly after moving to Troy from Brooklyn, I reconnected with an old Saratoga Springs High School classmate, Tim Biello. He was one of those rare guys who everybody was friends with in high school; he was just that well-liked. After we graduated from high school and went off to college, Tim and I largely fell out of touch: I’d only vaguely followed what he’d been up to in life on Facebook, and though we did share a mutual friend, Mark Oswalt, my childhood neighbor, I had little idea what he was up to upon returning to Upstate New York. I distinctly remember one time Mark and I both being back in Saratoga at the same time, and upon knocking on Mark’s front door, his mom telling me that he wasn’t around but had “gone off to Tim’s to help around the farm.” I think I assumed Mark’s mom had been using some archaic idiomatic phrase—when in fact, it turned out that Tim actually did own a farm just outside of Saratoga in Ballston Spa, and Mark had gone out there to assist in some agrarian adventure that day.

Soon after we got situated, I reconnected with Tim, and my wife and I were invited out to his farm, Featherbed Lane, with a few other couples, including Mark and his wife. I remember feeling this somewhat odd twinge of jealousy while getting the grand tour of the farm by Tim and his wife, Jamielynn, and their young son. I’d been working my entire career as this desk-jockey wordsmith, with piles of digital bylines to my name, but nothing tangible, save for the handful of print stories I’d published (and pay stubs I’d gotten) to document my years of toil. Tim, on the other hand, had 63 acres of lush, green farmland, giant draft horses, neatly hoed rows and sheds filled with bushel after bushel of consumable fare. He’d launched his own CSA, and he was not only feeding himself and his family on his hard work, but also the local community.

More than anything else I was jealous about that day at Tim’s farm was his level of enthusiasm for what he was doing. Look, I love writing and editing, and would feel weird doing anything else. But he was just this ball of energy, excitedly talking about his various plants and recent harvest, and he took us through his fields, picking vegetables and popping them in his mouth. (Of course, there were delicious samples for all.) This was a different, far happier Tim. I think we all get this picture in our minds of the weary farmer—early to bed, early to rise—just going through the motions, desperately poor and always on the edge of starvation. Maybe that’s Hollywood’s or John Steinbeck’s fault. But for Tim, that land he was farming day in and day out, rain or shine, was nothing short of heaven.

I get the same feeling talking to Saratoga farmer Jason Heitman, who owns Green Jeans Market Farm and has been farming full time for just over a year. But you might be surprised what got him there.

Spending his childhood in Western New York, just south of Buffalo, Heitman enrolled at the State University of New York Potsdam in 1992, and started working on an English degree, but soon found himself “disillusioned with college” and dropped out. (He ended up finishing his bachelors degree 16 years later.) By 1999, he was in his mid-20s and dealing cards for a living at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, NY. Around that time, he was offered a job at Verizon, and having just bought a home, he immediately put in his two-weeks notice at the casino, with the prospect of a higher-income job on the not-so-distant horizon. But the telecom giant kept delaying Heitman’s start date, and he needed money, so in a fit of desperation, he answered a want-ad for temporary painters, calling a telephone number on it.

Green Jeans Market Farm
Green Jeans Market Farm is located on a quarter-acre plot on Otrembiak Farm in Saratoga Springs. (Jason Heitman)

What he got on the other end of the line was something altogether different than what he’d expected: the local US Navy recruitment office. “I don’t know what that says about the Navy,” says Heitman, tongue firmly in cheek, of the apparent bait-and-switch ad campaign. Either way, he took the bait. And he didn’t stop there. He talked to recruiters for the Marines and Air Force, before ultimately deciding on the Navy, based on what he assumed would be a better training regimen. (All these years later, he still thinks he made the right move.) So he enlisted, did bootcamp and then, from 1999-2001, was stationed in San Diego, CA. He became a sonar technician, tracking enemy submarines on the USS Normandy, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser, which would be his home on the high seas for four years. “When you’re on a sea command, you’re underway all the time,” he says. “I do sometimes say this to impress people or freak them out, but I nearly circumnavigated the globe…within a few thousand miles.” (On separate occasions, he was on a boat east of India and a frigate west of California.) But ultimately, civilian life came calling. “I did my six years and was in Operation Enduring Freedom, and it wasn’t for me to reenlist,” says Heitman. So he linked up with some recently discharged Navy buddies, found a job through a headhunter in St. Louis, MO, and settled down.

Fast forward to 2008, and Heitman finished his BA in English, winding up in the Capital Region and enrolling in a graduate program for a spell. After reading a book on the food system and realizing “the tenuous existence of it…our food system is really vulnerable,” he says, Heitman decided to make the jump to farming. And he found inspiration for it in his military experience. “In the military, we fight on our stomachs,” says Heitman. “Here at home, we’re really not eating food that we grow; we’re eating food that’s either grown across the country or [in] another country. [And] we’re burning more fossil fuel than we, maybe, need to if we grew it locally.” That, in turn, led to an interest in the local food movement. Heitman, a self-described “workaholic,” had a lot on his plate at the time: Besides taking those grad school classes online in sustainable agriculture, he was working two jobs, one at Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle, the other at Artisanal Brew Works in Saratoga. “I was working 65-75 hours a week,” he says, all that while getting a stipend for housing courtesy of the GI Bill. That work ethic set him up for his next big step.

In late October 2017, Heitman leased a quarter-acre plot from Otrembiak Farm in Saratoga, dubbing it Green Jeans Market Farm (it gets its name, in part, from his partner Roberta’s late father, Gene, with the “Green” nodding to Heitman’s military service and his verdant area of focus). Because it was so late in the growing season, Heitman only had a few short months to sow seeds, so he was only able to grow onions and garlic for the spring season. (He grows in what he calls a “tunnel”—basically, a small greenhouse, where crops are planted directly into the soil.) He’s looking to expand that to a half-acre of land in the coming year, depending on how much staff he can hire and product he can sell at the local farmers’ markets. And speaking of expansion, this past May, Heitman was one of 50 military veterans who received $1000 towards his farm, thanks to a partnership between Tractor Supply Co. and the Farmer Veteran Coalition. The funds allowed him to buy a fencing system to surround his land, helping keep critters off of his cultivatable plot.

Even though the fence has been a major upgrade for his relatively small plot, he’s not looking to go too, too big anytime soon. “I want to [remain] a small-scale, intensive farm that grows lots of vegetables and serves a local market,” he tells me. “I don’t want to manage a lot of employees. I want to focus on keeping it simple.” Part of that ethos is farming in a completely natural way, free of pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals some bigger farms use. “I’ve never grown anything any other way,” says Heitman. That, and it’s incredibly expensive to farm that way. So how do the vegetables actually grow without fertilizer and pesticides to keep away plant-feasting bugs and other pests? “I try to manage what’s there,” says Heitman. “I’m not going to upset or wipe out any one thing. I’m not just growing carrots; I’m growing everything that I don’t bring to market—the bug and the weeds and all those things in a balance that allows me to still be productive and make a living [on] the farm.” The way he looks at it, if he were to eliminate one type of pest, he’d be making room for another one just like it. “I’m never going to outperform Mother Nature, so I’m just trying to listen and work with what she’s given me.”

The majority of the food Heitman brings to market he sells at local farmers’ markets such as the Saratoga Farmers’ Market—and this year, he sold out of basically everything. (He’s set up at as many as four markets at a time.) His cash crops include head and leaf lettuce, spinach, arugula, chard, kale, mustard greens, escarole, onions, garlic, leeks, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, beets and radishes. “I think the farmers’ markets in our area are great,” says Heitman. “The people are great, too; they’re knowledgeable about their food; I don’t have to explain to them what I mean when I say I’m certified naturally grown.” For those of you in need of a cheatsheet on the latter, it means that his farm is inspected by an actual inspector to make sure he’s actually growing his food naturally. The inspectors tend to be other local farmers, who know the territory and can do a thorough probe. (He’s only been inspected once, by the way, when he first launched his farm.)

You don’t normally think of the farming as a boom business, but as far as Heitman’s concerned, he’s already in the money. He’s been able to provide for his family and can rent a house in Ballston Spa, all on what he makes at the local farmers’ markets. And he’s super proud of the business’ lack of wastefulness. “I think I threw away almost no food this year,” says Heitman. “I’m really happy with that; you can’t see that success on a balance sheet.”

Of course, keeping a farm up and running can be a challenge during the winter, but Heitman, with that consummate work-work-work mentality, has found the perfect backup plan: He’s picked up a part-time job baking pies at the Food Florist in Ballston Spa. (He met his boss at one of the four farmers’ markets he set up at this past summer.) And he hasn’t strayed far from his plot, continuing to research how to grow better and expand his business, ever so gradually. Case and point: He attended the Farmer Veteran Stakeholder Conference at the end of November, a live networking event for fellow veteran-farmers, which touched on everything from crop and animal production to aquaculture and how to run a better farming business. For Heitman, though, going to the conference was about more than just about farming better or making more money. It’s about spreading the gospel to his fellow veterans. “I hope that Green Jeans Market Farm can be an avenue for other veterans to explore their own interests in farming,” he says. “This is a big part of Green Jeans Market Farm’s mission statement, and I’m looking forward to bringing what I learn back to Saratoga Springs and helping its veterans.” Next spring, I’m looking forward to driving out to Heitman’s plot and having him take me on a tour of his rows. Maybe I’ll even get a taste of his wares.

Interested in how other local veterans are making good on their post-military careers? Read this profile.

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