Givin’ up bad news for Lent, third edition
Wounded Warriors Learn to Farm
Call it beating their swords into plowshares, if you will, but numerous initiatives are springing up across the land to train returning war veterans in the fine arts of growing food. Working outdoors with seed, soil, sun and water can be deeply therapeutic for post-traumatically stressed soldiers. But such re-training also just might save American independent agriculture.
Nearly half of all our working farmers are expected to retire within the next decade, so says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are eight-times as many farmers over age 65 as there are younger ones. Yet the market for locally and naturally produced fresh produce is growing by, well, bean poles and twining vines.
While rural young adults comprise just one-sixth of the total population, they are 45 percent of the U.S. military. So countless returning GIs are quite naturally steeped in the unique skillset acquired on American family farms.
Firefights to Farmers’ Markets
On an organic avocado ranch near Camp Pendleton, along California’s south coast, Marines learn from a decorated, three-tour Iraq infantry-sergeant-turned-”heirloom-orchardist.” The hands-on class, accredited by MiraCosta College (syllabus approved by Pendleton’s transition assistance program), includes planting, irrigation, drawing up a business plan, and “high-value niche markets.”
Mid-continent, at the University of Nebraska’s College of Technical Agriculture, its Combat to Cowboy Boots course, plus generous fellowships offered wounded vets, are part of new veteran-centric farming and ranching incentives. A stated goal of U. Nebraska’s program is “to bring the energy of young soldiers re-entering civilian life to the aging farm population of rural America.”
Elsewhere, an avowed pacifist who pioneered the baby lettuce business — but whose son joined the military — has founded the nonprofit Farmer-Veteran Coalition. The group recently received a grant from the Bob Woodruff Foundation (established by the ABC newsman wounded in Iraq), providing farming fellowships to wounded returnees.
A Balm to Battered Souls
The healing value of performing meaningful work in partnership with nature cannot be overstated. Returning soldiers bearing Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s signature “traumatic brain injury” (usually incurred from the concussive forces of Improvised Explosive Devices) are finding profit and a sense of purpose in the farmer-veterans’ movement.
A Humvee gunner who came back with PTSD has nonetheless managed to earn a degree in Environmental Social Services while being essentially homeless for more than a year. He observed, “One thing I’ve noticed about agriculture is that you become a creator rather than a destroyer.”
A recent Purple Heart recipient from central Florida has been inspired to design, manufacture and market wheelchair-accessible, raised-box berry farm kits — providing handicapped growers with access to an extremely lucrative niche in the popular market.
Close to Home
In Albuquerque, the Veteran Farmer Project was launched just last month — a collaboration of Montanita Co-op, the VA, Bernalillo County Extension Service, the Mid-region Council of Governments, and others. Downtown’s new Alvarado Urban Farm on Silver will provide the required fields for the growing of dreams. And ongoing free classes for vets are covering botany basics, building soil, selecting seed, extending growing seasons and of course, marketing the bounty.
One final note: a former sergeant who runs an organic produce delivery service in the Bay Area recalls the joy that Iraqi orchard growers took in sharing their pomegranates, tomatoes and melons with forlorn American invaders. “We were learning how to face death, but there was life all around us.”
Primary source: The New York Times
Albrecht is a San Antonio, N.M., resident, and a longtime national and international affairs columnist. Look for her column on the last Saturday of each month in El Defensor Chieftain.