Battlefield Wounds to Farm Tough: From Destroyer to Creator

Spokane County Conservation District works to fill the void of aging farmers with soldiers

He will judge between the nations, and will render verdicts for the benefit of many. They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations will not raise swords against nations, and they will not learn warfare anymore.

– Isaiah 2:4

There definitely are some exciting studies that (show) horticulture, getting outside, working with plants, definitely has some healing effects on the cognitive and all the areas of brain function (and) recovering from brain damage.

— Michael O’Gorman founder of nonprofit Farmer-Veteran Coalition, based in Davis, California

Spokane, like big dog Seattle, or funky Portland – similar to almost any mid-sized city in the US – has a thing with food “culture” and the foodie movement. It’s a battlefield out there with armies of fast-food and comfort food chains up against the trendy, hip and expensive bistros and restaurants.

Ironically, outside some of those establishments we encounter those ubiquitous signs held by sallow-looking and sad individuals: “Military Veteran … Anything Helps … Need Work … Need Food … Spare a Dollar?”

These are times when juxtapositions are both startling and important – Farming and Veterans of combat!

The national security implications are daunting:

  • Veterans have upwards to a 20% unemployment rate;
  • they face a 9 month waiting period to even apply for disability claims;
  • and are 50% more likely to become homeless;
  • a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes

Now, add to this the fact we face historic droughts and food insecurity:

  • USDA is calling for one million new farmers and ranchers in the next 10 years to fill the coming gap.
  • This country has twice as many farmers over the age of 65 as under the age of 35.

In 2013, 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 33.3 million adults and 15.8 million children.

In 2013, 62 percent of food-insecure households participated in at least one of the three major federal food assistance programs –Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-formerly Food Stamp Program), The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Cultivating the Long Walk Home

Spokane’s Vicki Carter is working hard to cultivate the relationship between local farmers and veterans who are seeking a “back to the land” sort of healing after experiencing in some cases up to six or seven “tours” in the battle zones of the Middle East.

She’s the director of the Spokane County Conservation District, having started her tenure there in 1991. She is adamant about transition scenarios and outside the box angles – “turning a destroyer mentality back to a creator attitude.”

There are 3,000 conservation districts nationwide, yet Spokane is somewhat of a leader in this new way of dealing with the triple-headed monster of food insecurity/wounded veterans/aging agriculturalists.

“It boils down to looking at what we’ve asked our military post 9/11,” she told me. Admittedly, Carter’s inspiration for this soldier to farmer program is a documentary she brought to town almost two years ago: Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields.

She was tagged for months after inviting Dulanie Ellis to speak about her film after two screenings at the Magic Lantern Theater. The film is part of Ellis’ production company’s (Walk Your Talk Productions) exploration of getting the farmland in her Ojai, California area protected from development. She is also leader of her area’s Food Council.

Both Vicki Carter and the filmmaker have the same goals of sustaining and promoting local agriculture. Call it agricultural activism, environmental stewardship of farming, or a new movement to grow the number of farmers and the connection to healing our military.

From Tanks and Rockets to Tractors and Manure

“The goal of Ground Operations is to strengthen the growing network of combat veterans who are transitioning into organic agriculture; and to build their resources so that they can create healthy new lives for themselves and food security for our nation,” Ellis writes.

The nuts and bolts, according the Pat Munts, small farms coordinator for Washington State University in Spokane, is to cultivate success, which is a 12-week program that recently incorporated eight veterans, two nights a week at Spokane Community College. “Throwing stuff into a box and seeing what shakes out . . . no risk or huge investment” is the analogy Carter makes.

Carter and her team are hitting all the area events to publicize the county’s Vets to Farms program. A farmer and his wife, Randy and Lisa Emtman of Valleyford, WA, pitched in and donated a 1954 tractor, two acres for a learning farm and 25 horses for equine therapy. Carter was quick to point out others in the area are helping make the program stand out. That tractor is the emblem of farms and veterans trying to initiate this new agricultural relationship.

St. John Hardware in Fairfield, WA, fixed up the tractor and painted it red, white and blue so it stands out at fairs and parades.

I also spoke with a veteran who lives and works in Florida and has run a non-profit since 2010 to help guide veterans into growing various agricultural products. Adam Burke, a purple heart recipient and founder of Veterans Farm, is 38 and sees farming as a new beginning for guys recovering from injuries, both physical and spiritual. What about those ex-military veterans makes them perfect candidates for farming, I asked.

“Overall discipline and hard work and the ability being challenged with unexpected things,” Burke said. “You have to be a jack of all trades. In the military we were given a mission by higher command. It was up to the lower enlisted to decide how to best tackle this mission. There was never one solution for every scenario. The wrong choice would cost us our lives. But we’ve always believed a wrong decision was better than no decision at all. Veterans (not all) have the ability to overcome paralysis analysis and make a decision. On the farm you usually have to make them in a hurry with no guidance or training. You are on your own to figure things out.”

Veterans Farm has a 13 acre educational farm, where Burke and others train soldiers to be farmers and to think and plan for their sustainability. Additionally, part of the program includes training mentors on farms that will be sent veterans for a three-to-six month training regimen.

Value Added and Grown in the USA

We’re not talking about Sicilian heirloom beta vulgaris (beets) here. A lot of farmers have deep and traditional training at hand – former high school ag teachers, professors from college, people with permaculture backgrounds, hydroponic and aquaponic backgrounds, grass fed cattle operators, honey makers, you name it.

This is real soldier to soldier mentoring through Burke’s efforts, and Adam sees sustainable lives and giving back to the community as common themes in his Veterans Farm ethos.

“While people are focused on war and cultural, inflation, and terrorist issues, they are not aware of one of the biggest issues today and that is America’s food crisis,” Burke said with urgency. “For every five or six farmers retiring, there is only one young farmer taking his or her place. The average age of a farmer is approximately 60-65 years of age. What happens when they go?”

Again, the challenge of large looming issues around shortage of fresh foods strikes both Carter and Burke as vital to the health of communities, large and small.

“The questions Americans should be asking is, ‘do I want to live in a world where I have to buy all of my food from other countries, or from the government or would I rather be able to have the freedom of choice of who and where and how I buy your foods? As a soldier who served in Iraq as 11B Army Infantry for 16 months, I can tell you that we have a much larger crisis here at home. It’s one you cannot see and most are not prepared for and one that is not covered by mainstream media.”

At the first veteran-focused Cultivating Success course, Carter said one particular individual kept showing up. He’s now the first veteran intern; and a farmer who once was a homeless student vet, to boot. At the Carter house, last Thanksgiving, this veteran spoke of a cousin, who served in the Marines and was deployed five times and now is on 42 medications to “treat” PTSD and depression, Vicki said.

One Million Farmers v. Another Million Apps?

There are better, more holistic and community-driven ways to heal the wounded soldier, and Carter and her team have taken to pushing hard to build that understory of getting farmers linked to soldiers for a win-win interrelationship.

I asked Carter some of the more out of the box but valid questions around why we can’t begin envisioning and realizing collective farms like they have in Cuba, and why we can’t envision and realize taxpayer financed “farms of healing?”

“These are GREAT options and not in any way to be excluded from Vets on the Farm,” she told me. “If we were to find folks interested on both sides (farmer and vet), we would most certainly pursue that partnership. I love the story about care farming where doctors are now writing prescriptions for our vets (and others) to literally get out on the land. It’s truly healing and it makes sense – it’s our roots (no pun intended).”

For Adam Burke, the roles between veteran learner and farmer teacher have to be big and far-reaching: case management, research, field (agronomy) training, physical fitness and on-line work. There is a mission of understanding set forth, as well as the number of hours agreed upon and a housing stipend provided.

After on-the-farm training, the veteran starts a business and marketing plan, works with lenders and creditors, maybe securing a lease or even acquiring land outright.

Forty Acres and a Mule, err, John Deere

This country has had programs set around wars and returning veterans – World Wars I and II, when our country’s labor shortage in the agrarian arena was sapped. After the Second World War, most of the hired hands didn’t return to the farm. There were few farmers willing to go back to their old labor-intensive methods, with opportunities like the GI Bill and a new post-industrial society (and office jobs) burgeoning. So, the US government built in price supports in order to prevent post-war farm recession, like the one that happened after World War I.

This allowed farmers to take their increased incomes to purchase machinery so they didn’t have to rely on hired hands as much. Total net farm income – after production expenses were taken out – rose from $3.5 billion in 1940 to $15.4 billion in 1947.

Farmer Tom Bailey from Pasco, WA, has had more than 49 years growing crops and husbanding livestock. He remembers the post-World War incentive in the Tri-Cities (WA) to get returning WW II vets to work the land.

It was frought with failure and lack of support, but Bailey sees these new programs Carter, Burke and O’Gorman of Farmer-Veteran Coalition as sustainable, hopeful. Land given out, in this hard-scrabble area, with little training, and with tough dry-land farming conditions, to add to the struggle of re-entering civilian life in a pretty sparsely populated (back then) location.

Burke’s vision is simple, after facilitating various complicated hurdles to master as veteran farmers: “We put them to work in the field, and then we say ‘Go work in the market, sell the produce and go get out in the community, meet your neighbors while you’re providing them with this great service.'”

Bailey is working hard to make sure veterans have a chance to recover, and working the land and ranching are viable forms of healing he himself utilizes. “Too many returning veterans from this area [Tri-Cities] come back with very little opportunities to apply whatever it is they learned in the military. What better way than getting a young man’s or woman’s head cleared with hard work that at the end of the day provides tangible and observable results, almost immediately.”

One of the foundations to these programs is working on sustainable agriculture, and working to provide each community with safety nets both as food consumers and neighbors of returning veterans.

“As far as national policies go, I don’t think we can do enough for our returning Vets,” Carter said. “We simply have to address two very important issues as a nation. One being food security and the other being the effects of over 10 years of war. PTSD is so real and so damaging. We have all seen the news … 22 veterans per day are committing suicide. There is no other group of people with numbers like that. Our post 9/11 veterans are also experiencing a 7.2 percent unemployment rate compared to the national average of 5.4 percent.”

Eating has always been an agricultural act, but now we can say, a plate of locally grown food is one step to healing someone who sacrificed body, soul and spirit in what they believed was the defense of this country.

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.
― Wendell Berry, from The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

  • First appeared in Spokane Living Magazine, September 2015 issue, starting on page 1098!
  • Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.