Female veteran’s small business gives boost to other female vets

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girl with goat kid
Jaylen Van Nice, 13, with a kid from the goat herd she manages on her family's farm. Jaylen's mother, Giana, got a grant from the Skirted Soldier to add goats and chickens to their rotational grazing plan. You can find her @jaylenstribe on Facebook and find Blue Dog Farms @bluedogfarmspa.

When Rhonda Smith started her small business, she had one objective in mind: to give back.

Smith started The Skirted Soldier in 2018 with a goal of giving back 10% of all sales to other female veterans, especially those involved in agriculture and agribusiness. Smith makes hand blended loose leaf tea that’s sold at retailers in 21 states.

So far she’s given out more than $3,000 to four female veteran farmers through the grant program she runs in partnership with PA Veteran Farming Project.

“Next year, we want to be able to give more away,” Smith said. “That’s what keeps us going. We want to make more to give more. I’m not doing this if I can’t give back.”

Business

Smith served for a decade in the Air Force as a surgery tech and then trauma nurse stationed in Germany.

When she got out of the military and returned to civilian life, it was hard. The transition is always difficult, but even more so as a female veteran, she said. There weren’t many people like her back home in Pennsylvania.

rhonda smith and her husband stand on a bridge
Rhonda Smith and her husband, Dan. (submitted photo)

That experience sparked an idea she carried with her for years. She wanted to start a business to help other women like her. She could give back part of her profits and hire female veterans.

“The service gave so much to me,” she said. “I got so many good positive things and people out of it. I have to give back. I have to pay this back somehow.”

She worked at a human services agency in Blair County, bought a farmette, built a home with her husband, Dan, and raised two children. All the while, she kept a notebook with business ideas until the right time and right idea hit.

That happened in 2018 when her daughter made an off-hand comment about how the tea shop in town they used to visit had shut down.

Smith started playing around  with making tea at home. Eventually she had a product line, a slew of local vendors and an e-commerce site.

Now her teas are sold online, at stores throughout the country and in 50 locations in Pennsylvania.

Recipients

The first year, in 2019, Smith gave out a $300 grant. Last year, it bumped up to a $1,000 grant. This year, she was able to give away two $1,000 grants. The latest recipients were announced March 1.

Tammy Preble, of Wolfe Springs Farm, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, will use the grant to add microgreens to her CSA. Alicia McClinktock, is using the grant to buy a porta-hut for her herd of rotationally grazed Boer goats on Tenpenny Farm, in Gardner, Pennsylvania.

“If we were going to have to do it ourselves, we were going to have to wait and save up. The little flush of cash came at the right time,” said Giana Van Nice, owner of Blue Dog Farms, in New Freedom, Pennsylvania. Van Nice received the $1,000 grant last year from the Skirted Soldier.

Van Nice, a U.S. Navy veteran, used the grant to buy equipment and supplies to help them add goats and chickens to their rotationally grazed cattle.

family photo
The Van Nice family, of Blue Dog Farms: parents Dan and Giana with children Jareth, Jaylen, Jesse and Joy (Kathie Jones photo)

She served for about 10 years, starting in 1999. She was a surface warfare officer and was active duty and deployed during 9/11.

She sees a lot of parallels between farming and military service. There are connections between the nature of service and altruism in both fields, but also the skills required.

“You’re able to think quickly on your feet,” she said. “You’re able to think outside the box. You just think about problems in a different way.”

That out-of-the-box thinking is what brought Van Nice and Smith together. Van Nice and her husband, Dan, run Blue Dog Farms in York County, with their four children. In addition to beef cattle, they also have pasture-raised pork and chicken.

They wanted to control weeds and flies without using herbicides and pesticides. So they came up with the idea to add goats and laying hens to their grazing plan. In addition to natural pest control, the additional animals would serve as new revenue streams.

The $1,000 grant from the Skirted Soldier was used to buy an old horse trailer that was converted into a mobile chicken coop, more fencing for the goats and some other supplies. The goats were a big success last year; the chickens a little less so, but they’re learning and constantly making improvements.

Van Nice’s 13-year-old daughter Jaylen has taken over the goat side of the business. She manages the herd, deciding when to breed the does and selling the kids. Her goat business even has a social media presence now; you can find Jaylen’s Tribe on Facebook.

“Everyone has a job,” Van Nice said, of her family farm. Her 17-year-old son Jareth manages the chickens, and her two 7-years-olds, Jesse and Joy, do what they can.

“It’s all hands on deck,” she said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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