Cultivating Veterans

Just one month before retiring in 2011 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates thanked WSU students, faculty, and administrators for their efforts to “recruit and embrace our military veterans returning home from America’s wars” in his commencement address at the 115th annual spring graduation ceremony in Pullman. He was referring to individuals like C. James Quann (’54, Animal Sci.; ’60 MS, Ag. Econ.), who is on the CAHNRS Alumni Wall of Honor in part for founding the WSU Veterans Memorial; programs like VITAL, Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership; and collaborations like the one you’ll learn about here, between the Green Alliance for Veterans Education (GAVE) and WSU Extension.

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 opportunities for healing through physical work, connecting with nature, and giving back to their communities in a whole new way. Working 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.

Success in the garden

Robin Hill Veterans Garden sign.
Robin Hill Veterans Garden near Sequim, WA.
Photo by Derrell Sharp.

At the Robin Hill Veterans Garden near Sequim, Washington, veterans and their families are reaping more than the carrots and cucumbers they’ve been growing. The three-acre site is part of a project supported by a partnership between GAVE, WSU Extension, Clallam County Parks, and the Albert Haller Foundation.

“There’s not a lot of nurturing during war,” said Jeff Reyes, a veteran who is also a counselor and board member of GAVE. “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.

He enlisted the help of WSU Extension to make sure the newly recruited veterans had the best possible growing experience. Clallam County Extension Director Clea Rome, along with Master Gardener Program Coordinator Laurel Moulton, taught a course on sustainable ranching and farming from the Cultivating Success program. In addition, WSU Extension Master Gardeners were on-site during the growing season to help the aspiring farmers and gardeners.

“Some of the veterans and their families were brand new to farming, so 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 more from the course,” Rome said.

A farm of their own

Dan and Barb Cutts sitting on a log.
Dan and Barb Cutts with their dog and heritage Tamworth pigs.
Photo by Nicole Witham.

Dan and Barb Cutts had enough farming experience to use the Cultivating Success course to reinforce their business plans. Dan’s service in the U.S. Navy from 1974 to 1978 qualified him and his wife for a scholarship from the Haller Foundation that paid for their tuition.

“We had wanted to take the class for a while, but couldn’t afford it,” said Barb. “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 said.

Jeff Reyes and Sari
Jeff Reyes and daughter Sari getting ready to plant potatoes.
Photo by Derrell Sharp.

Farmer-to-veteran learning

In Port Townsend, Liz Rivera Goldstein, a graduate of the Cultivating Success course offered by Jefferson County Extension and a long-time peace educator and activist, is in the planning stages of creating another 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 be donated to local food banks.

“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 projects, find work on farms so they can support themselves and their families, or simply grow food for themselves.”

Similar programs that connect veterans to agriculture are getting established in other Washington counties. According to the national Farmer Veteran Coalition, all 50 states now have veterans’ farm programs that recognize the “unique skills and character needed to strengthen rural communities and create sustainable food systems for all.”

By Sylvia Kantor

This story was originally published in the March 19, 2014, issue of Green Times. You can find the complete archive of the newsletter and subscription information.