Growing Veterans: Small farm offers dirt therapy, community for local veterans and volunteersNov 6th, 2013 | Category: Features
Dirt therapy. It’s a term that many people who enjoy gardening, farming, growing and being outdoors can identify with. The dirt, the ground, gives you growth, meaning and life. The simple act of planting a seed, watching it grow, caring for it, and getting dirty, can bring sincere happiness. It forms a connection to life, through honest, rewarding, hard work. For Growing Veterans, they are doing just that. Working a three-acre farm outside of Lynden, in view of Mount Baker, they are using the power of dirt and plants to reconnect, teach, and offer opportunities for local veterans who have served in war and experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while growing food and making a place for community and volunteers.
Christopher Brown, 27, a former U.S. Marine who served three combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, formed Growing Veterans after he found it very difficult to transition back into a normal, civilian life. Honorably discharged in 2008, Brown returned to Washington and began volunteering with veterans groups, including the Bellingham Vet Center and the Whatcom County Veterans Advisory Board, while working on his degree in Human Services with a psychology minor from Western Washington University.
It was at this time he also began growing plants, following a suggestion by a counselor that it would help with his PTSD.
“I started with a planter box on my balcony,” he said, “and then I went to a raised bed.”
A Purple Heart recipient, Brown said he wants to honor those he served with by creating something good in the community and helping other struggling veterans.
“If I don’t have something mentally to keep me occupied then my mind goes to places I’d rather not go to,” Brown said. He added about his experiences, “I wouldn’t change it for the world or wish it on my worst enemy.”
He enjoyed growing plants and thought strongly about forming Growing Veterans, so he shared the idea with others, including Tony Noordmans, a Korean War vet, who encouraged Brown to move forward with the plan.
At the same time, Growing Washington was actively looking for veterans to join their farm.
“About two years ago I was approached by [Brown] about starting up a project that would help integrate returning veterans into society through jobs in sustainable agriculture,” said Clayton Burrows, director of Growing Washington, a non-profit farming organization based in Everson. “We immediately hired Chris to work on our farm at Alm Hill and he spent the first year learning to grow food.”
At the end of the first season, they started to formalize the project and decided to call it Growing Veterans.
The group officially launched in June 2012, also working with Growing Washington’s partner Viva Farms, a non-profit farm in Skagit County, as well as The Mission Continues, a national non-profit that challenges post 9/11 veterans to serve and lead in their communities once they return home.
Since then, Burrows said, Brown “has done a remarkable job learning to farm, recruiting veterans and, most importantly, serving as the leader of a viable resource center for troops who are returning home with problems and issues that most of us cannot even begin to comprehend.”
A year and a half into the program, Growing Veterans has a farm manager and core group of 12-15 veterans serving as interns, volunteers and crew, as well as other veteran and civilian volunteers. Set up at the former site of the Bellingham Food Bank Farm, on approximately three acres near the Guide Meridian south of Lynden, the group is nearing the end of its first growing season. The farm has produced over $60,000 in vegetables (market value), including kale, onions, lettuce, broccoli, chard, beets, turnips, tomatillos, spinach, carrots, winter squash, sugar snap peas, leeks, rutabagas, kholrabi, and brussel sprouts, as well as some raspberries.
The food they grow is used in Growing Washington’s weekly CSA boxes distributed Whatcom, Skagit and King counties, or sold at farmers markets. The seconds are donated to the food bank or go home with veterans.
Growing Washington – having been former partners with the Bellingham Food Bank Farm, which ceased production in 2012– was able to take over the lease “and use this land as the home base for the Growing Veterans project,” Burrows said. “We knew that the best thing for the Growing Veterans project was to dig in and do something tangible. I firmly believe that the act of doing – getting out there and getting dirty – has brought the Growing Veterans project from a winter concept to a viable model in a mere 12 months.”
Both Brown and Burrows credit Chris Wolf, the Growing Veterans farm manager, with much of the success. Wolf, who has a background in counseling, was a former volunteer with the Bellingham Food Bank and worked the farm for several years, as well as with other local farms. She decided to ask about the farm manager position when she learned Growing Veterans was taking over the space. She was hired.
“I love it. It’s hard work, but so rewarding and enjoyable. I can’t imagine a better job for me,” Wolf said.
She works with the crew to organize the weekly farm needs, and said they bring skills that are a major asset to the ongoing work. “Being trained in the military, veterans already know how to work together,” she said, a quality that is helpful with their work, especially farming. They “function as one” and communicate regularly.
Everyone has had to learn together this first growing season, Wolf said, but their progress and teamwork have been amazing and something she is proud to be a part of.
In addition to her farming skills, her counseling experience offers opportunities for any veteran that may want to talk with her.
“She is the only non-veteran employee on the farm, and also the only paid female employee on the farm,” Burrows said. “She is the glue that holds the farm together.”
It always makes him smile thinking of her, he added, “working with and ordering around a bunch of male veterans because she certainly ranks among the most gentle and humble people I have ever met.”
Working as a team
Brown said working alongside fellow veterans helps him and others with their PTSD, and also shows how well they work together.
“I’ve gotten to observe how great veterans are at farming. They work hard, are so observant, and really know team work. We are trained that way.”
Those on the crew expressed positive feelings for the program. Many of them have completed or are finishing degrees through the GI Bill, and are looking forward to putting their skills and service towards work they both enjoy and feel will benefit the community.
There is a great sense of teamwork, pride and camaraderie on the farm, and a hearty dose of humor. “We sometimes pull rank on each other,” they said, “and address Chris (Brown), as sir.” One of crew, they added, made a funny hip-hop song about veggies.
Some of the other crew members include:
Chris Rowell, born and raised in Washington, served four years in the Navy and recently completed a degree in Spanish at Western Washington University. He is now working on his French skills as he will be departing in early 2014 for a two-year Peace Corps assignment in West Africa. Rowell has organized and recorded the group’s video clips of their work on the farm, most of which is posted to the group’s Facebook page.
Justin Power, also of Washington, joined the military in 1996 and served 16 years in the Marine Corps and Navy. Currently a volunteer and intern at the farm, he is also a student at Trinity Western University, studying for his psychology degree. He wants to put his degree to use by becoming a counselor for fellow veterans.
“This is such a great outlet and is something I wish was more prevalent,” Power said of the group, noting the importance of being able to come together like this.
He and his wife have three children, and enjoy visiting the Growing Veterans farm and helping with the work. Purple carrots, Power said, were a favorite of the kids, noting how much fun his son had running around, showing everyone his purple mouth. “This is an eye-opening experience,” he said, for all of them. “Everything tastes better out here.”
Jake Oostra, another volunteer and intern, has a Bachelors degree from WWU in International and Sustainable Education, and is pursuing a Masters. He served as an Operations Specialist with the Navy, leaving the military in 2005. He has worked with the Bellingham Vet Center, The Whatcom County Service Office, and the Regional VA Office in Seattle, and spent six seasons as an assistant farm manager at another farm.
Clayton Swansen, the Special Projects Coordinator and the Mission Continues Fellow, served seven years in the Navy as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician. He graduated from WWU in 2012 with a degree in English and Creative Writing, and currently serves as the editor of The Horn, Growing Veteran’s blog dedicated to sharing veteran’s stories with the community.
“The most satisfying part of the farm for me is working and talking with other vets. We all bring unique perspectives to the table, and it often helps to get another’s point of view on things,” he wrote online. “We are each other’s sounding board here, and it’s just another way that the farm helps us in our transition back to the civilian world.”
Daniel Nessly, the Sustainable Resource Coordinator, joined the Army in 2000 and served in both the Pacific and Iraq. After eight years and injuries, he left the Military and earned his bachelor’s in Environmental Science at WWU in 2011. He is currently working on his master’s degree.
“My favorite part about the farm is what happens after planting,” he wrote on the Growing Veterans website. “Watching everything grow, becoming true plants and harvesting them later; all the while knowing that we’ve nurtured that life into its full potential, and now that other people can enjoy it too.”
Justin Blotsky is a volunteer and Mission Continues Fellow, who served in Iraq with the Army. He is completing a degree in Environmental Economics.
There are a number of other volunteers as well, including male and female veterans of all ages from all military branches, foreign exchange students currently studying at WWU, and local residents. Anyone from the community is welcome to inquire about work parties and volunteer opportunities.
“You don’t want to have to farm to get involved,” Brown said, noting off-farm work as well, including their website, marketing and service learning.
Local support, expanding outposts
Locally, the group has received some support from businesses including a grant from Home Depot and donations from Hannegan Farm and Home.
Matt Aamot, owner of Hannegan Farm and Home in nearby Hinotes Corner, and also a veteran, supports the efforts of Growing Veterans. His most recent donation to the group came in the form of a percentage of the store’s Open House profits in October.
“As a veteran, as a brother of veterans, and as a Gold Star family, having lost a younger brother in Afghanistan, I have a real concern for how our veterans integrate back into ‘the world’ after experiencing war,” Aamot said. “We lose too many people to the problems with post traumatic stress. Programs like Growing Veterans are vital to making a difference and giving vets a place to heal, talk with each, and learn new skills.”
Growing Veterans’ latest survey showed 90 percent of participants feel better about helping others in their community, 74 percent are eating healthier, and 64 percent gained tools to create positive change in their community.
As the group will soon prepare for its second growing season, plans are moving forward to start Growing Veterans outposts at other sites in northwest Washington, including Viva Farms in the Skagit Valley and 21 Acres in Woodinville. Two veterans are currently being trained to build the foundation for next year, and the group hopes to host specialists at each site, Brown said.
“The intent of the outposts are to support the local food system by partnering with existing organizations, provide opportunities for vets to get involved, and build up Growing Veterans presence in those areas,” Brown said.
The possibility is there for further growth as other locations have expressed interest, however the crew will examine those ideas over the winter. In addition, the group aims to provide internships for participants in the programs offered by the SAgE grant (sustainable agriculture), awarded through Edmonds Community College in Snohomish County.
Next season, Growing Veterans will continue to operate under Growing Washington, which pays for staffing (Brown and Wolf), the lease, utilities, and all materials and supplies, Burrows said. “With our regional CSA program we had an immediate market that could absorb, aggregate, and distribute every single thing that the veterans grew. I had faith in Chris, and I figured that if anyone could adjust to farmers hours it would be veterans. In return, the Growing Veterans project promised to do its best and grow as much food as possible.”
The farm grew enough food to support about half of all costs, and with the help of a grant from TripAdvisor they were able to offset some of the costs of initiating the project. “I am pretty darn pleased with the outcome,” Burrows said. “Next year I have challenged them to double the value of the food grown on site. Veterans respond well to orders, so I am betting that they’ll make it happen.”
Brown is also happy with their progress and looks forward to the future. The reaction from local veterans and people in the community has been “extremely positive.”
He is currently working on his master’s degree, and stated farming is what he wants to do long-term.
“A first year farm, non-profit endeavor, I am constantly amazed at what we’ve been able to do. I want to prove to them this is worth their time,” he said. “I can think about something positive here and what we’re trying to do in the community. We’re doing this together. It’s such an honor to be a part of this group.”
Anyone interested in volunteering or learning more about Growing Veterans, can visit their website at www.growingveterans.org or follow their Facebook page. Work parties are held Tuesdays and Fridays (with a barbecue on Fridays). Volunteers and donations are welcome.
In addition to on-farm work, Brown is also organizing OpWire, a resource for sustainable ag farmers and related agencies.
To make a Veterans Day donation online, visit https://secure.qgiv.com/for/gwgv/pledge/33300/
–Becca Schwarz Cole