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A life of service

By Lauren Finnegan, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

Maj. Joseph Labarbera (Ret.) looks out over his farm in Stillwater, N.J., where he is implementing the agroforesty practice of silvopasture along with N.J. NRCS.For retired Army Major and beginning cattle farmer Joseph Labarbera, there was never any doubt that he would serve his country. Growing up in Staten Island, he clung to every word of the war stories told by his father, a World War II veteran, and loved playing with the little green Army men that were once a mainstay in every child’s toybox.

“Ever since I was a kid, every time I saw G.I. Joe, every time I saw Army men or heard the stories from my elders – there was never any question in my mind that I was going to be a Soldier.”

So in 1995, he joined the military and started a honored career that would span two decades and include a combined 54 months deployed in support of conflicts around the globe.

But it wouldn’t be until September 2004, on the outskirts of the village of Radwaniyah, Iraq, that then Captain Labarbera would realize what he wanted to do in his second act – become a farmer.

Deployed as the Civil Military Operations officer with the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Drum, New York, Labarbera, and half a platoon of soldiers were traveling to meet with a local sheikh to gain information about the rocket attacks that continued to pound the Baghdad International Airport.

After traveling with four gun trucks through a desolate wasteland, the soldiers were astounded to see date and palm trees surrounding lush swaths of farmland belonging to the sheikh. After a productive meeting and a delicious feast, the sheikh then unrolled a 15-foot papyrus scroll adorned with a fig vine dotted with hundreds of leaves. Written on each leaf was the name of one of the sheikh’s ancestors who had worked that same land before him. 

“At that moment I thought, no one living in a city or a suburb could ever have this,” Labarbera said. “You can’t. You’re a slave to the economy. But when you have a farm and you have your own system, you’re the master of your own land, you’re the master of your own life. And when I saw that, I said, ‘this is for me.’”

After retiring in 2016 in Washington State, Labarbera was finally able to fulfill the dream that started in the hills of Iraq, when he purchased a 30-acre farm in Stillwater, N.J.

‘When I retired, I was going to school at the University of Washington, the Pacific Northwest, it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been, but I had to think long-term for my family and I wanted my kids to have access to everything,” he said. “I wanted them to have access to a great city (New York City)… I didn’t want my family to become limited to the farm…. And I thought I could achieve that best [in New Jersey].”

Since then, Labarbera has been working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, NRCS, through two Environmental Quality Incentives Program, EQIP, contracts, which will provide financial assistance toward his operation for Dexter cattle and St. Croix sheep.

The contracts include one to develop a forest stewardship plan and another for livestock related practices such as the installation of a fence, livestock pipeline, watering facility, prescribed grazing, and silvopasture. Silvopasture is the agroforestry practice which combines tree management and grazing animals on the same land to maximize profitable opportunities.

“With limited pasture for his livestock, Joe was interested in utilizing part of the forestland as silvopasture,” said NRCS Soil Conservationist Xanvith “Bea” Sabouathone. “He is one of the first farmers to adopt the practice on his property in the state, and my initial thought was how are we going to make this work? But after a few site visits with Joseph, his passion and willingness to put in the effort had me convinced we could do this.”

After a lot of research and the help of a technical team, Sabouathone devised a plan to introduce the right mixture of grasses and legumes to balance the forages, which will allow them to thrive while maintaining and managing crop trees for future products. As the trees are harvested, a new generation will be planted to take their place. All of this will work in tandem with the grazing animals whose waste will be distributed throughout the field and recycle the nutrients back into the soil.

“The emphasis that NRCS has put on soil, has awakened me to where I’m learning a lot more about it now and how it plays into everything you do,” Labarbera said. “Soil is magic. It’s where nature begins… and I hope to learn even more from the guys at NRCS.”

While the project isn’t expected to be fully completed until sometime in 2023 or 2024, Labarbera is excited to build the same type of legacy he found while deployed to Iraq.

“This is a lifetime commitment. And not just for me -- for my children, and their grandchildren.”