Ground Operation

IT’S A MAY evening on the farm. My husband’s planting tomatoes and our son needs a bedtime story, but I’m completely occupied with pictures of war. I’ve cleared the piles of laundry from the kitchen table so our friend Adam can spread out his albums. There are photos of Adam in his tidy platform tent, of brown mountains in the distance, and dozens of pictures of children grinning on the other side of razor wire.

“This is an Aardvark,” he says, pointing to a gargantuan armored vehicle as he describes the flails that detonate buried mines. “What does that do to the soil?” I ask, because this is what you wonder when you and your family have been Mennonite farmers since the Reformation. There are a few more photos before I finally get it. Adam is showing me Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military hub in Afghanistan, surrounded by minefields and littered with burned-out tanks and planes, the wreckage of war from the Soviets. No one farms here, or has, or will for a long, long time.

FOR THE PAST three seasons, Adam McDermott has come to our farm in Central Pennsylvania’s Stone Valley every Friday morning to harvest vegetables for the food bank. We always chat while we bunch beets or pick green beans, and now I wonder why we’ve never talked about his years in the Army.

“This farm has definitely been part of my therapy,” he tells me, while offering a brief sketch of his months in Iraq: taking heavy equipment down unfamiliar roads to set off hidden explosives, being promoted to sergeant, and then losing three friends when a bomb shattered their Humvee. Adam came home in 2008 with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and an alcohol addiction. “A lot of guys struggle with alcohol,” Adam says. “In the military you have camaraderie and a sense of purpose. But when you get back, there’s just this big void.”

Across the U.S., there’s a growing movement among veterans to fill this absence with agriculture. Michael O’Gorman started the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) out of his pickup truck six years ago. Based in Davis, Calif., the FVC serves nearly 100 vets a month, offering job connections, mentors, training, and resources to beginning farmers.

When I talk with O’Gorman, he dispels one myth right away about farming and veterans. “Most people assume farming is healing because you’re waltzing through fields of lavender with your basket picking vegetables,” he says. “But you know farming. If you didn’t have PTSD before, you sure will in a few years. These are kids whose world was shattered by 9/11. They joined the military at 19, and their reasons for joining were mission driven. Farming—now here’s something with a mission. It’s real, it’s difficult, it’s physical and mental, and it protects and serves a community of people.”

In the next decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, half of current U.S. farmers are set to retire. Meanwhile, the 2.6 million soldiers deployed since 2001 return home to face an uncertain job market. “I know what it’s like,” says Army veteran Justen Garrity. “I got a Bronze Star in Iraq, and six months later I was on unemployment.”

With the help of a $5,000 grant from FVC, Garrity launched Veteran Compost in 2010. He now employs eight other veterans to sell compost and collect food scraps from schools, hospitals, restaurants, and stores around Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Justen attributes his success—the business turned a profit in its first 18 months—to a combination of hard work and good timing. “When I started, I was going to restaurants offering to pick up their food scraps, and they said, ‘What are you talking about?’ The last couple of years, there’s been all kinds of interest on the collection side and the production side. Whether it’s for health, economic, or environmental reasons—everybody’s growing food, and nobody wants Miracle-Gro on their gardens anymore.”

Likewise, my husband, Micah, and I started farming in 2009 just after the documentary Food, Inc.—and before that Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—turned the nation’s heart toward local food and farmers. Though it remains difficult to buy land or acquire enough capital to start a farm, in certain circles young farmers have rock-star status, which can be empowering for veterans starting out in agriculture. “For whatever reason, there hasn’t been a ticker-tape parade for anyone coming home since World War II,” O’Gorman explains. “There’s not been a sense of recognition, or honor, or victory, or completion. But more and more people support beginning farmers, and they will support veterans with a little encouragement.” The FVC’s Homegrown by Heroes program, launched in 2013, banks on that support, offering vets a label to identify their agricultural products at farmers markets or retail stores.

Adam Burke’s Veterans Farm produces “Red, White, and Blueberries,” which are beloved by local Jacksonville, Fla., residents—most of all because their growers are disabled vets. Wounded by shrapnel in Iraq, Burke came home in 2004 with a Purple Heart and a traumatic brain injury that left him with blinding headaches and unable to walk without a cane.

“The last thing I remember when I was injured,” says Burke, “was praying that if God would let me see my family again, I’d make my life worth saving.” A 2009 meeting with O’Gorman of the Farmer Veteran Coalition gave Burke a chance to make good on his promise. FVC bought his first blueberry bushes and now, five years later, Veterans Farm has grown to 19 acres of berries, vegetables, and herbs—all wheelchair accessible—with a six-month Beginning Farmer fellowship program that, since 2011, has graduated 32 veterans. Dozens more vets have received donations of equipment or seed money to get started in agriculture, and over the years, Burke and his blueberry farm have mentored hundreds of veterans.

“The thing about farming,” says Burke, “is that we focus on the future, not the past. The majority of veterans who come here have PTSD. They’re thinking about the past when they go to sleep. Now they’re planning for the future—what do we need to do tomorrow or next month in the field? In addition, the fellowship program allows them to work with children with disabilities, which enables them to focus on issues other than themselves.”

Along with training in agriculture and business, Veterans Farm fellows also gain job skills by volunteering in the Jacksonville community. “There are stereotypes about PTSD,” Burke explains. “People feel that [veterans] are crazy or depressed or won’t show up for work. We get out in the community and build gardens and donate to the food bank, so that business leaders can meet veterans and feel comfortable hiring them.” This year, Veterans Farm is launching an ambitious partnership with the University of Florida to offer accredited training to more veterans and to connect graduates with land and farmer mentors.

In Oakland, Calif., Navy veteran Kelly Carlisle is growing vegetables with urban youth who face barriers very similar to those of wounded vets. “Vets with PTSD can’t get jobs, and it’s the same in East Oakland,” she notes. “People say the whole area is unhireable.”

In 2010, Carlisle started Acta Non Verba, a garden-centered summer camp for kids, after reading a news story that cited Oakland’s 40 percent dropout rate. “In the comments below the story, someone wrote that the world only needs so many nuclear physicists, but we’ll always need janitors, so why bother educating East Oakland?” Carlisle was outraged. “As a veteran, I fought to promote freedom. This isn’t freedom.” So she asked the city for a quarter acre and launched her first summer camp. Kids from age 5 to13 plan, plant, harvest, and sell vegetables, and the profits go directly into personal savings accounts for their future education.

Last year, of the 75 children who came to summer camp, only 25 showed up for graduation and only 13 set up a savings account. “We brought the banker to the farm and everything,” Carlisle laments. “The disinvestment in East Oakland has been so generational and so pervasive. It’s terrifying. My one little drop of teaching kids how to farm and how to save money feels like a losing battle.” Still, Carlisle is determined to keep going. “My big dream is to get more land—somewhere between three and five acres—and kick it up to food production level, so that we can really start to change the food system and so the kids can have a place as a retreat.”

The FVC bought a pickup truck for Acta Non Verba and continues to support Carlisle and other women veterans by connecting them online and in person through annual Empowering Women Veterans conferences. “They put us up in a nice hotel, and we got training in the legalities of running a farm, insurance, business planning,” Carlisle says. “But the best thing is this group of brilliant women. We have almost daily check-ins now about how people are doing with parenting, school, farming, and work.” This October, nine women—all friends from last year’s conference—are traveling together to Italy as delegates to Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial conference.

“When you get out of the military, you’ve got to find your crew,” says Navy veteran and aquaponics farmer Vonita Murray. “For me, it’s these amazing women farmers. We’d give our lives for each other.”

WHEN MY HUSBAND and I started farming, we named our five acres Plowshare Produce, wanting our work to further the prophet Isaiah’s vision of transforming weapons into tools for nourishing a community. But some days when the sun’s beating down, bugs are eating holes in the vegetables, and the tractor won’t start, Micah comes home and says, “It feels like war out there!” Of course, neither of us knows what war feels like. But for veterans like our friend Adam, wounded by years of dedicating mind and body to war, a battle to make things grow, no matter how arduous, might feel like peace.

In 2013, filmmakers Dulanie Ellis and Raymond Singer released an award-winning documentary inspired by the work of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields ends with a series of farm scenes and O’Gorman’s moving tribute to agriculture as a path to healing for veterans: “When you’ve gone out and seen the world and had your friends die in your arms, you’re coming home ... and you’re looking for where is my place in this life. We feel like this is the place where you can take all those things you brought into the military: your strength, your bravery, your ability to stand up when you’re knocked down, your sense of service and sacrifice, your willingness to carry the world on your shoulders.” And to that I can only say “Amen.” 

Bethany Spicher Schonberg, a former Sojourners intern, grows vegetables with her husband, Micah, their son, Ben, and her parents on their CSA farm in central Pennsylvania.

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