BAD – Defending the Land: Young Veterans Take Up Sustainable Farming

With Leora Barish.

New York, N.Y.  In 2007, Michael S., a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, was on patrol in Iraq when an Iraqi soldier nearby stepped on an IED. Shrapnel flew, and Michael was hit. He received the Purple Heart, and, the metal still in him, returned to his home state of Georgia.

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Caption. Photo: XXX credit.

He enrolled in college, where he studied geography. He also had an interest in gardening and agriculture. By his senior year, he had begun poking around the Internet for farmer-training programs, but when he graduated he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He and his partner, Marie, had no real direction. Maybe, they thought, it was time to pull up stakes, not put them down. They decided to go on the road — destination unknown.

They took off in Michael’s Ford Focus, which he’d bought with his deployment money. It was May of 2014. They headed west, camping out in a tent. Rain seemed to follow them. By summer’s end, the couple had reached Seattle.

Now what? Michael wanted to make a plan, wanted to know what he’d be doing for the winter. He started thinking about those farmer-training programs he’d read about, and decided to apply.

One program, a startup nonprofit called Heroic Food, was looking for its first participants. It was located on a twenty-acre farm near Hudson, New York — a long way from Seattle, and from Georgia, too. But the program offered some appealing things: a supportive environment for veterans and their partners; lodging; and instruction in basic farming skills, like mixing soil, seeding, transplanting, weeding, pruning, harvesting, and record-keeping. Heroic Food also pledged to help the applicant get a paid apprenticeship at a nearby working farm.

Michael, a quiet, low-key guy, was excited. But Marie had her doubts. Farming? New York? Didn’t it get freezing cold there? Marie hated the cold, and besides, she liked being on the road. Rain or no, she wasn’t in any particular hurry for this phase of her life to end. It was like a dream.

But she knew this lifestyle wasn’t sustainable. And so she agreed to go east and, with Michael, try her hand at farming. The couple arrived in Hudson in September 2014.

Once at the Heroic Food farm (old white farmhouse, big red barn), Michael and Marie met with Leora Barish, the program’s founder. Barish, screenwriter whose credits include the 1985 hit Desperately Seeking Susan, had grown up on army bases. Her father was a career Army chaplain who was disabled during the Korean War, and when he died in 2012, Barish wanted to honor his memory, something to help veterans. The plight of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan left plenty of opportunity.

Barish also had a longstanding interest in food justice and sustainability, and when the two problems — ill-served veterans and imperiled small farms — crossed their wires in her brain, a light snapped on. Her idea? To build the first residential farm-training program designed exclusively for veterans.

“Farmer training can help returning veterans make the transition to civilian life, heal from trauma, and prepare for careers in a sector that badly needs them,” Barish says, noting that the median age of the American small farmer is around sixty. “Soldiers have the kind of fortitude and commitment are really valued and sought after farming. In turn, farming provides veterans an opportunity to continue serving others, and to assume stewardship over the land they had pledged to defend as soldiers.”

It’s well known that returning veterans face formidable economic, social, psychological, and spiritual challenges. What’s less appreciated is the emptiness and despair that many feel when they no longer have a mission to complete.

“Soldiers are happiest and most themselves when they have a mission,” Barish says. “When they come home and there’s no more mission, they often experience a loss of self and purpose so severe that they can barely function.”

Barish had attended conferences of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which is one of Heroic Food’s partners, along with the Hawthorne Valley Association and the Cornell Small Farms Program. Over and over at the conferences, she heard the stories of troubled veterans, some close to suicide, who were brought back from the brink through farming.

“It’s really about serving others,” Barish says. “That’s their salvation. These veterans are concerned with sustainability, food justice, and protecting the soil. What they wanted and needed after coming home was to serve, to nurture, to work for peace by tackling food issues not only at home but also in the countries where they were deployed and wounded. These are people who hunger for a way to be of value and service to their communities.”

Michael had that hunger. But when he and Marie got to Heroic Food they were a little overwhelmed. Neither of them knew for certain that farming would be for them. And then there was strangeness of being in a new and different place.

“A new house, new state, new weather, a new area I had to familiarize myself with — I was very intimidated,” says Marie.

That winter, Michael and Marie took a class called “Farm Beginnings.” When the planting season started, Barish helped them get apprenticeships at Hawthorne Valley Farm. This was key. In Stephanie Westlund’s book Field Exercises: How Veterans Are Healing, the military trauma expert Tia Christopher says, “We’ve found that when veterans can follow a plant cycle—when they prepare the earth, they plant the seed, they nurture it, they harvest it, and they eat it or they sell it — that process in itself is healing.”

This seemed true for Michael, who embraced farm work immediately. He started tending a part of the Hawthorne Valley farm that grows food for the local school and the farm’s store. Michael raised leafy greens, root vegetables, broccoli, cabbage, onions, and herbs, sprouting them in the greenhouse and then transplanting them to the field once the ground was warm enough. He learned how to prepare that ground, and how to set up irrigation. Come harvest time, he learned how to prepare the produce for market.

“I like being outdoors, and working with the natural world,” says Michael, whose produce is also sold at farmer’s markets in New York City, including the Union Square Farmer’s Market. “Farming is pretty low stress — almost none to speak of. It’s the first job I’ve ever had that I don’t dread going to. But it can be tiring; the work I do is all by hand. Eight hours a day, moving and lifting. I don’t need to work out to stay in shape.”

Sometimes, the physical pain from his injury kicks in. That makes the hard work harder. But he pushes through.

“That’s just what military people do,” Barish says. “They get the job done no matter what.”

Michael and Marie still live in the Heroic Food farmhouse. Barish plans to build eight double-occupancy dormitories on the property, and bring the farm up to speed so that it can help pay for the cost of running the program. At the outset, she had reached out to Andrew Burdick, director of Ennead Architects, a firm that does pro bono work for causes it believes in. Ennead drew up the dormitory plans. “The design,” Burdick says, “is a direct response to the character and beauty of the surrounding working landscape, the character of the farm’s structures, and the more distant views of the rolling agricultural fields and mountains of the Hudson River Valley.”

Marie enjoys the bucolic setting, despite the cold winters. She has learned some things at Heroic Food. One thing she learned was that she, unlike Michael, wasn’t cut out for farming. So instead, Heroic Food helped her find work at the Hawthorne Valley Farm store. She started in the stock room, became a cashier, and is now, to her own amazement, a floor manager. She has found her place in the sun.

“Michael and I took different paths, and it was alright,” Marie says. “I’m glad I knew what I wanted, and that Michael ended up loving what he is doing now —farming!”

You can see that love reflected in a photograph of Michael, taken this past summer. He is standing in a field of bright leafy greens. He wears a green T-shirt and gray trousers on his thin frame, and holds a red bucket. His dark hair is swept back. He has a long, curly beard. His mouth is a flat line and his tanned face is impassive, serene, with just a hint of a smile in his brown eyes. He looks as if he has sprung up from the earth he stands on.

Behind him, on either side, receding amid the greens, are metal gardening stakes, each about four feet high and planted firmly in the ground.

About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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