Sequim, WASH. – Military veterans on the Olympic Peninsula are healing invisible wounds of war by digging in the dirt. They are part of a trend taking root across the country called agrotherapy, which helps veterans not only overcome difficulties like post-traumatic stress syndrome but also gain skills to help support themselves and their families.
For a growing number of veterans, farming and gardening offer an opportunity for healing through physical work, connecting with nature, and often giving back to their communities by donating the fruits of their labor to food banks. The chance to do physical work alongside fellow military vets and family members in a welcoming environment is also good medicine for the isolation that many veterans experience after returning to civilian life.
At Robin Hill Veteran Gardens near Sequim, Wash., veterans and their families are getting a chance to grow food but are reaping more than carrots and cucumbers. The three-acre site is a project of the Green Alliance for Veterans Education.
“There’s not a lot of nurturing during war,” said Jeff Reyes, a veteran who is also a counselor and board member of the Green Alliance for Veterans Education. “But here’s a chance to nurture something alongside your family, a chance to be in a peaceful environment and to help something grow.”
Reyes believes there’s healing in watching what you’ve planted grow and seeing the rewards of your efforts in tomatoes, pumpkins, and potatoes.
“We didn’t want these veterans to fail so we approached WSU Extension to help them learn about farming and gardening,” Reyes said.
Last spring, a handful of veterans and their families took WSU Extension’s Cultivating Success course on sustainable ranching and farming as part of the farming and gardening project near Sequim. In addition, WSU Extension Master Gardeners were on site during the growing season to help the aspiring farmers and gardeners. Clea Rome is the director of WSU Clallam County Extension and taught the course with Master Gardener Program coordinator, Laurel Moulton.
“Some of the veterans and their families were brand new to farming and the Master Gardeners were really helpful for them. Some already had farming experience and were further down the road with thinking about a farm business so they benefited from the course,” Rome said.
A farm of their own
Veterans with all levels of farming experience and diverse military service participated in the program. Dan Cutts’ service in the US Navy from 1974 to 1978 allowed him and his wife Barb to take the Cultivating Success course through a scholarship from the Haller Foundation offered only to veterans.
“We had wanted to take the class for a while, but couldn’t afford it,” said Barb Cutts. “So, the scholarship was the answer for us. The class gave us many things, but the confidence that we are on the right track and a network of like-minded people is invaluable.”
The Cutts are raising Tamworth pigs that get to roam freely in their forest. Their goal is to establish a thriving micro-farm that will continue beyond their lifetimes:“One that can provide a bit of everything, from produce raised in our gardens to fruit from the orchard, to a healthy meat source from animals who get to ‘leap for joy’,” Barb Cutts said.
According to lead farm manager Derrell Sharp, Brian Kneidel, who is retired from the US Air Force, and his family learned to farm at the Robin Hill Veterans Farm. Kneidel took to farming so well that he now serves as the assistant farm manager alongside Sharp. The garden is a partnership between the Green Alliance for Veterans Education, WSU Extension, Clallam County Parks, and the Albert Haller Foundation.
In Port Townsend, Liz Rivera Goldstein, a graduate of the WSU Extension Cultivating Success course offered by WSU Jefferson County Extension and a long-time peace educator and activist, is in the planning stages of creating an agricultural training program for veterans.
The program at her Peace Patch Farm will provide housing and a part-time salary for hired veterans, and also pay for them to take Cultivating Success courses. Veterans will learn all aspects of growing and marketing the farm’s flowers, herbs, and produce which will be sold to help sustain the program or donated to the local food bank.
“Our hope is that those who work on the farm can find peace and healing,” Goldstein said. “We want to help vets develop skills to start their own farming project, to find work on a farm so they can support themselves and their families, or to simply grow food for themselves.”
In western Washington, a handful of similar programs that connect veterans to agriculture are getting established. According to the national Veteran Farming Coalition, veterans’ farm programs are now established in 48 states. Such programs offer hope and healing for veterans and their families, many of whom originally come from rural areas, but they can also strengthen rural communities and local, sustainable food systems.
Cultivating Success was created in response to growing demand for education focused on small-acreage, sustainable agriculture and ranching. Courses are offered by WSU Extension throughout the state of Washington. For more information, visit www.cultivatingsuccess.org.