By Evan Eagan

On the morning of September 11, 2001, like most Americans, Jon Darling’s life changed in an instant.

After watching the second plane crash into World Trade Center Tower 2 on live television, he decided in that moment to join the military.

Ten days later, still engulfed in the emotions of the aftermath of the attacks, Darling enlisted in the Army as a cook. Thirty days after that, the Dover Plains, New York, native was on a one-way flight to Army Basic Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

“I felt hollow at that moment,” Darling said in a serious tone. “I was angry. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I wanted to do something better in my life and the Army allowed me to do that.”

After graduating basic training, Darling would go on to attend both Airborne School and the Ranger Indoctrination Program at Fort Benning, Georgia, before being sent to 1st Ranger Battalion at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia.

As a soldier in one of the Army’s elite fighting forces, Darling was no stranger to deployments, logging six over the course of his four-year enlistment, including two in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and three in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“The time I spent in the Army were some of the best, and some of the most challenging, times of my life,” said Darling. “I loved my unit and highly respected the brave men I worked with. I knew the Army wasn’t my life calling, so I did my four years and left with honorable conditions.”

Like many veterans, Darling didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life after separating from the Army. However, with his newfound freedom, he would spend the better part of a decade traveling, DJ’ing, and working various jobs in the restaurant industry, to include a brief stint as a restaurant owner.

Realizing he wasn’t happy with the direction his life was heading, and after a few run-ins with law enforcement, Darling knew he needed a change.

“I felt like I was falling from grace,” said Darling, who has an associate’s degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s degree in hotel/restaurant management. “I struggled with myself and was angry and depressed most of the time. I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere and was starting to question my character.”

It was during this time in 2012 when Darling discovered farming. Deciding to take a long drive to clear his head with his dog, Penne Pasta, he headed north on South Carolina’s Highway 17 where he came across Thornhill Farms.

While Darling began his education in livestock production at Thornhill Farms, he was thrust into uncertainty—a familiar position for many farmers—multiple times due to a series of disputes after the farm was sold to a new ownership group. Despite this uncertainty, Darling was allowed to farm at the Thornhill location until September 2015, when he was informed that he and his 100 livestock animals were being forced to vacate the premises.

With no idea where to go, or who to turn to for help, Darling stumbled across Farmer Veteran Coalition through a Google search. Once in contact, FVC immediately began assisting him to locate resources in his local area. Though it wasn’t immediate, Darling, through his own legwork, was able to secure 20-acres of land by the end of December 2015.

“The FVC helped me by letting me know that I’m not crazy, that there are other vets out there doing the same thing and going through the same struggles,” he said. “Especially in the beginning, it was really helpful knowing that I can call the FVC to get information I really needed.”

Today, Darling Farm’s operation has expanded to 60 pigs and 60 sheep which he slaughters and sells the cuts of meat to local markets, restaurants and community members under the Homegrown By Heroes label. In the coming months, Darling plans to further expand by adding ducks and goats to his operation.

For veterans considering a career in farming, Darling offers this bit of advice:

“Before you get out of the military check out farms, talk to farmers, see what’s going on, see your market,” he said. “Figure out the business side first. Get all the advice you can before you jump in. Do your research.”