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From service work to field work

How Veterans to Farmers helps vets transition to civilian life

On a late Wednesday afternoon in January, Taylor Drew is busy moving ducks out of a vegetable garden at the Bromley Historic Farm in Brighton, Colo., squeezing in the last couple hours of daylight. He frequently rotates the ducks to different areas across the pasture – they help clean up weeds and fertilize the land. He says it also keeps the ducks happy. These days, Drew has a lot of titles: he’s a duck wrangler, a chef, a co-owner of the LoHi Steakbar in Denver, a father and, as of a year ago, a farmer. He’s also a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and it was his service that helped connect him to his newfound passion for farming. In 2017, Drew participated in an advanced program series offered by Veterans to Farmers, a Colorado non-profit that trains veterans in all aspects of agriculture. The series had Drew working in the fields, experiencing the operations of a large community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, and listening to business management experts explain the financial side of farming.

“It helped me to build a farm plan and learn how to talk to people about it in a way that gets them excited about what you’re doing,” says Drew of his experience with the Veterans to Farmers program. “It’s made me much more confident and gave me a solid foundation as to how I was going to start [farming], and it was ultimately what led me to Bromley Farm.”

Discover how Bromley Farms is leading a local foods revolution.

Working with partners that include Colorado State University Extension and Denver Botanic Gardens, Veterans to Farmers is able to provide comprehensive, hands-on training for service members to learn new skills that can help them transition to civilian life and work in the agriculture industry. This includes courses on everything from seeds and soil to controlled environmental farming and financial management. The organization also boasts an incubator farm for their graduates, a space where farmers who are just getting started can share tools and equipment to hone their skills while mitigating the risk and expense of a solo farming venture. In the past four years, Veterans to Farmers has worked with 139 veterans. Of those 139 participants, 18 have taken on new jobs in the industry, seven have pursued advanced education or horticulture degrees, and 12 have started their own farms.

Veterans to Farmers Executive Director Richard Murphy sees the connection between veterans and agricultural work clearly. He points to the physical work, the problem-solving, and the attention to detail as reasons why teaching agricultural skills is an ideal fit for those who have served. Murphy is himself a veteran of the Air Force.

“Agriculture is wonderful,” Murphy says. “But I joke with people that farming gets sexy real fast in theory, but the moment you’re out there doing it, you realize that it’s really hard work with a high-cost investment in the beginning.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Drew.

“Farming is a really hard job,” he says. “But veterans are very apt at dealing with hard jobs. When you’re in the military, there is no ‘we can’t do this so we’re going to walk away.’ You figure out a better way. If you fail, you figure out a way to start again. That’s something that I think is very ingrained in all veterans and those who have served.”

Agriculture is also an industry in need of laborers. A 2015 report from New American Economy shows that the supply of workers available to U.S. farmers is rapidly declining. Between 2002 and 2014, according to the report, full-time field and crop workers have dropped by 20 percent, causing a major labor shortage on American farms. Those are jobs that veterans returning to civilian life might be able to help fill with the right training.

But the goal of Veterans to Farms isn’t just about finding a new career; it’s also about creating community and opportunities for veterans to learn, connect and thrive through the program’s other therapeutic benefits.

“A portion of veterans participate because they really want to learn how to grow food for their family, and a portion are there because it’s an opportunity to get out of their normal daily habit and be with other veterans,” says Murphy. “And if you’re talking about a vet that’s struggling with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury, then the number one danger for that veteran is isolation. So if you can create a place to reach out to your veteran family and say, ‘I know you’re in a spot, so why don’t you come out with me for the afternoon and plant some tomatoes?’, then you have an opportunity to actually break the ice. You have the opportunity to talk, to get that person in a different pattern.”

The mental health benefits of farming and gardening are well-documented. A study in the 2010 Journal of Health Psychology points to a direct correlation between gardening and a decrease in the production of cortisol – the body’s main stress hormone – noting that those who garden are likely to experience less acute stress and more happiness. Some doctors have even begun prescribing gardening as a means of mental health intervention. Community gardens and group farming opportunities like those provided by Veterans to Farms have the added social benefit of creating an environment where people can connect and share.

“We teach so many things – botany, integrated pest management, nutrients,” says Murphy. “But it’s more than just an educational course; it’s an opportunity to create community. If you want a really strong group of farmers, they have to work together.”

For some, this can mean making a new friend or meeting a future business partner. For others, it can be fully transformational, as evidenced by testimonials from the program’s graduates. Using gardening and agriculture to strengthen community is a practice being put into action by several organizations and neighborhoods in Colorado. One example can be found down the road from Veterans to Farmers’ headquarters at the New Freedom Park community garden in east Denver. With the help of Denver Urban Gardens, Denver Parks and Recreation, the Colorado Health Foundation and other non-profits, New Freedom Park is now a robust garden where refugees grow familiar produce to help feed their families and meet their neighbors while adjusting to a new life in the United States.

Learn more about how New Freedom Park helps refugees establish new roots. 

The reasons why a veteran might want to get involved in gardening and agriculture vary from person to person. It might be for human connection, for job-skills training, or to simply try something new. For Drew, it’s helped him think about his work and restaurant in a brand new way.

“I’ve been writing menus, and it’s amazing how much has changed in terms of what I am using and why, and how ingredients can work together,” says Drew. “Getting involved in the farming side of things has changed my thought process as a chef.”

No matter what the reason, Veterans to Farmers is committed to providing flexible opportunities for any service member whose interest is piqued.

“If you show up because you want to be a farmer, we’re going to do everything to help you achieve that goal,” Murphy says. “But if you’re here because you want to learn how to grow food for your family, or you just need a place to be, you can do that, too. It’s about creating a space to meet veterans where they’re at.” ■

START ON THE RIGHT FOOT

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