Returning veterans are drawn to the land.
By Marian Burros
Photographs by Dennis Brack
Seriously wounded in Afghanistan in 2011, Capt. Marc Tucker expects to retire this fall from the Marine Corps and become a full-time farmer-in-training. He’s already interning one day a week in preparation for his next career — following the path of a steadily growing number of veterans, both men and women, who have decided that the life of a farmer is particularly suited to their experiences.
Tucker’s interest started as he was healing from surgery. No longer able to do the workouts to which he was devoted, he was told to take up gardening in order to stay in shape. After two years growing tomatoes and cucumbers, he was hooked but hadn’t yet realized what gardening had come to mean to him.
“As I healed physically, I dedicated less time to the garden,” he says, “but found myself being upset. I had to deal with life-altering news. I had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury. That was huge for me. And I realized that working in the garden helped my mental health. There truly is a symbiosis in any type of farming through soil and animals and plants: there is something natural, holistic and pure. I had this awakening. There’s such a beauty in being able to create.”
Through other Marines at Quantico, where Tucker is stationed, he learned about Spring Hill Farm, owned by Brian Criley and his wife, Kim.
Criley, a 21-year veteran of the Marine Corps, who had two tours of duty in Iraq, is running a 52-acre sustainable farm in King George County, near Fredericksburg. He has begun an intern program for veterans that will not only teach them how to farm, but also to help those having trouble readjusting to civilian life.There will be experts who can help them psychologically. Criley calls his plan “agra-therapy”.
“I absolutely believe agriculture is incredible therapy for veterans,” he says. “Most people who just garden are somewhat aware of the therapeutic aspects of it, how good it is to have your hands in some dirt. I think a lot is elemental. You are doing something that has to do with creating, not destruction. That’s particularly helpful to veterans. Reintegration builds life skills to help you cope with all of life’s stresses, providing tools and strategies you may not have learned.
“The character traits the military builds are the same traits as farmers have: independence, a set mission no matter the weather with limited resources.”
Tucker, who is 39, is Criley’s first veteran farmer intern. The money for the Crileys’ ambitious program, which they hope will eventually include residential facilities for some interns, donated by small businesses, foundations and individuals. They are applying for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, one of several, specifically for veterans, created in the 2014 Farm Bill.
The Crileys are a perfect example of the savvy modern farmers who understands it’s not enough to grow things: “To succeed financially, you have to capture more of the end dollar through value added products, workshops in woodcraft, herbalism, membership in a small co-op, pig roasts,” he says. In other words, getting to know their customers well by getting them involved.
While the farm is not certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — it’s too expensive for many small farms — it uses organic methods. Criley describes his approach as “beyond organic” — farming in a sustainable fashion.
“We are also pushing the concept of bartering, renting, trading land for young farmers,” Criley adds. “These are more viable options for young farmers just starting.”
Filling a need for farmers
As much as veterans need help becoming farmers, Americans need veterans who want to farm. The current generation of farmers is aging, and many of their children are not taking over the family farm. But 44 percent of veterans are from rural communities, more than double the general population, so the rural life appeals.
Like Tucker, many veterans have found some measure of peace since becoming farmers. Carol Buck who retired from the Navy in 1995 as a full commander, was one of the first women to go to sea. She began farming six years ago, on seven and a half acres just south of Warrenton. It supplements her Navy pension.
“I’m living my dream, which was not to travel,” she says. “I wanted to be in one place and put roots down. I always was interested in growing things. I wanted to be a naturalist, and farming is less stressful and more meaningful. Animals don’t judge you. It’s very peaceful and I do like to help other people. I think it’s part of the military ethic to care about shipmates.”
Buck’s farm also has a CSA and sells heritage turkeys.
After almost 10 years in the Navy, Andrea Chandler, who launched Tomahawk missiles during the Iraq war, wanted out. Still carrying assorted physical ailments and post-traumatic stress, Chandler found that running her two-and-a-half-acre farm, has done a lot to heal her wounds:
“Having a farm helps me sleep at night,” she says. “I have fewer nightmares. I can get in the dirt and forget about the war.
“I can get out with the chickens and the goats and the rabbits. I’m trying to help these animals and heal myself. It’s important to have food raised kindly.
“Farming raises your soul up instead of tearing it down.”
Providing a helping hand
Over the last eight years, more and more groups have sprung up to help veterans become farmers, including a three-year farmer training program in Northern Virginia that is scheduled to launch in the fall. It is funded by the nonprofit Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, which was created by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.
According to Pamela Hess, the Center’s executive director, the first track will be a weekend program that allows people to get their feet wet while still retaining full-time work elsewhere. The second track will be a three-year apprenticeship program, culminating in connecting newly minted farmers with landowners to obtain affordable leases.
Probably the best known of all of veteran-to-farmer training programs is the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Michael O’Gorman, a retired farmer, is founder-director.
“There’s a lot of what happens when someone comes home from war that we can’t do anything about,” says O’Gorman. “We can’t change it. We can’t fix it, but we can change the mission.
“There’s something attractive in creating life after seeing the other end of it: something hopeful.”
Background and Context
POST TRAUMATIC STRESS AND THE ANCIENT GREEK POET HOMER
Post traumatic stress is as old as war itself. Homer wrote about it in the Illiad and Odyssey.
Capt. Marc Tucker refers to those Greek epics in describing what happens to soldiers when they return from war and Dr. Jonathan Shay, now retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs, saw the connection when he read both poems years ago. Dr. Shay calls PTS “a psychological injury of war, not a mental disorder,” and says it is incorrect to call it PTSD.
Shay treated veterans by talking to them about the mythological Greek warriors, Achilles and Odysseus and what Odysseus suffered on his long journey after the war back home, what anyone who read the Odyssey learned, but often did not understand. The tests he faced on the journey back — the Lotus Eaters, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, call of the Sirens, the Cyclops — are manifestations of turmoil of returning warriors.
Shay is quoted as saying that the veterans whom he has counseled “appreciate that they are part of a long historical context — that they are not personally deficient for having become injured in war.”
The Odyssey asks whether a soldier can ever return home, surviving not just the war but what the war has done to him.
CAPT. MARC TUCKER ON THE VALUE OF SUSTAINABLE FOOD
“Does it cost more to get rich nutritious food to the table? Yes it does, but let’s look at medical costs associated with the food we eat.”
“You’d be amazed at how many Marine families won’t shop at the Co-op on base. They are looking for grass-fed meat, eggs” not the industrial products the PX sells.
LABELING PRODUCTS PRODUCED BY VETERAN FARMERS
The Farmer Veteran Coalition has created a new label that can be affixed to food grown my veteran-farmers: Home Grown by Heroes (www.hgbh.org)