“The brand recognition of being Kentucky Proud and Homegrown By Heroes has helped. I have had people buy my product because they said they liked supporting veterans and Kentucky Proud,” says Rusty Branstetter of Munfordville.
Branstetter, a member of Farmers RECC, owns and operates Bella’s Bees, named after his 4-year-old daughter, Arabella. He sells honey, makes and sells beeswax candles and also removes swarms and hives.
In 2013, he applied to the Homegrown By Heroes program, which promotes agricultural products produced by military veteran farmers.
Branstetter entered the Army in 2008 and served in the 82nd Airborne during the Iraq War. Returning home in 2013, he found that beekeeping helped him focus and gave him a way to relax.
Homegrown By Heroes was launched by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) in January 2013, and the program went national the following Veterans Day. The national program is administered by the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a California organization that helps veterans find careers in agriculture.
“Since the program’s start in 2013, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and Farmer Veteran Coalition have worked together to highlight the many farmer-veterans around Kentucky and our nation,” says Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles.
In November 2017, KDA expanded membership eligibility in Kentucky to allow active-duty military personnel, reservists and National Guard members to participate in Homegrown By Heroes along with military veteran farmers.
In 2018, Branstetter was awarded a $3,000 Farmer Veteran Coalition grant, which he used on beekeeping equipment to expand his business. He upgraded from a two-frame plastic extractor to a six-frame stainless steel one.
“The new extractor made bottling honey more efficient and quicker. In addition, I purchased a 110-pound stainless steel storage tank and uncapping tank with strainer. I was also able to purchase new boxes and frames to add an additional 20 hives (for a total of 35 now) as well as equipment to start raising my own queens. The grant helped my business grow and expand. This year I’ve already harvested and sold four times as much honey as last year,” says Branstetter.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition has awarded $1.9 million in grants to more than 500 veterans to help launch their farm businesses. Applications open again in early 2019.