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Growing Veterans

Dirt therapy works its magic on a Skagit hillside

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Down on his knees planting onions, Vietnam War veteran Mike Hackett reflects on the way his vocation has changed lives.

“It’s a three-legged stool,” the college- trained agriculture specialist explains.  “We grow food, we grow our community and we grow each other.”

He’s talking about Growing Veterans, an organization in its fifth year of farming and providing peer support to troubled war veterans. Members work the soil, grow and sell vegetables, and offer each other mental and emotional support. There’s impressive evidence the activities ease post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental afflictions.

A few feet down the onion row, former Army medic Scotty Irwin presses young plants into silty brown soil and offers a theory on the life-threatening depression that plagues so many veterans.

“In the military, you have a singular, specific mission,” she says.  “You have constant companionship and support. Always someone looking out for you.”

They become your tribe, Hackett says.

“And when you get out of the military,” Irwin says, “you’ve lost your tribe. You get this isolated, disconnected feeling of being without purpose.”

“But there’s something about growing food, being grounded here on the farm working with friends and looking out for each other, that gives you a brand new outlook. Without it we’d be sitting on a lot of couches in a lot of therapists’ offices.” 

The farm currently operates with 10 employees and attracts scores of volunteer workers—some 450 per year, contributing 2,500 to 5,000 hours of work to the year’s production—about 45,000 pounds of food last year with about 11,000 pounds of that going to food banks.

It’s harder to put numbers to GV’s peer-support initiatives, the work aimed at holding off the dark and desperate thoughts of self-destruction. They do know that 54 members were trained in peer-support techniques last year, and that 1,056 people received help from the trained peer supporters. The nature of that help is sometimes hard to define.

Christine Wolf, GV’s director of peer support, says it involves active listening, exchanging real stories, making certain every member knows there’s someone to talk to confidentially, in complete trust.

A major goal, Executive Director Ken Holzemer says, is to remove the stigma of seeking help.

“For years, you were supposed to be a bad-ass when you came home from the war,” he says. “Nothing bothers you. Everybody who’s been there knows that’s not true, but the idea of asking for help is still somewhat un-American. We’re trying to make the pendulum swing the other way.”
From its beginning, Growing Veterans has been blessed with good timing and good-hearted people who take to the idea of improving the lives of troubled veterans while advancing the cause of sustainable organic farming. 

Cofounder Chris Brown, now a mental health counselor with the Veterans Administration, was a combat marine in Afghanistan, from 2009 through 2011.  Forty-one members of his battalion died in battle. At least 15 took their own lives after they left the military.

One astonishing number haunts those who work in the field of suicide prevention: 22 veterans take their lives each day, based on a Department of Veteran Affairs analysis of death records from 21 states.

“Almost everyone who’s been in the military knows of someone who’s killed himself after leaving the service,” Brown says.

He was wounded in Afghanistan and suffered seriously from PTSD when he came home. His father talked him into seeking help. A counselor suggested he try growing plants to alleviate stress and depression.  It helped, and Brown began thinking of ways to combine farming, counseling and peer support in a single organization. 

One of Washington’s earliest and most successful organic farmers, Clayton Burrows of Growing Washington, liked Brown and his ideas, hired him and helped teach him the essentials of vegetable farming.  Brown began looking for veterans interested in farming cooperatively.

Christina Wolf called him. She was not a veteran, but she was a mental health counselor working with PTSD victims and brain-injured veterans. And she had a background in organic farming. Brown and Wolf cofounded Growing Veterans with two staff members and a handful of volunteers.

Growing Washington,  Clayton Burrows’ farm in Everson, nurtured the new organization, helping to find land, pay bills and handle administrative chores.  In return, GV’s food production went into GW’s Community Supported Agriculture food boxes, delivered to paying customers. 

“It wasn’t profitable in the classic sense,” Burrows says, “but the payback has been tenfold.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that Growing Veterans has literally saved the lives of some veterans who were having a challenging time reintegrating back into society,” he declares.

More serendipity. Just when the organization needed to expand beyond its three-acre plot near Lynden, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran got in touch with Holzemer.  Would Growing Veterans be interested in leasing 40 acres within a mile and a half of I-5 at the south end of the Skagit Valley?

Not just any 40 acres. Eyeball-washing views of rolling pastures and timbered ridges. A good house that had once been a group home for brain-injured veterans. Just right for a GV office, for meetings and retreats.  A snug machine shed that now—with a wood stove and easy chairs—provides a gathering place for coffee breaks.

And a summer hoop house for producing tomatoes and other hot-weather crops. And a climate-controlled greenhouse, ideal for starting vegetable plants from seed.

Best of all, it’s on the edge of an ancient lakebed, where centuries of sediments have turned into fertile, silty loam. After decades of cattle grazing, it needs only a bit of organic phosphorous to make vegetables leap out of the ground.

This week, staff and volunteers are sprucing up the place for their pre-Mother’s Day plant sale, May 6, with a complete alphabet of the Northwest’s most popular vegetable starts.

Beginning in June, they’ll be marketing produce, along with started plants, at the VA hospital’s farmers market in Seattle, Marysville’s Saturday market and Mount Vernon’s Wednesday market. Everything they sell is certified organic, matching the criteria set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Joel Swenson, GV’s farm manager, seems never to lose his smile when he’s within touching distance of a vegetable plant. It’s literally a world away from where he was a few years ago. He was an army combat medic in Afghanistan and had a hard time becoming a civilian.

“Like a lot of my military buddies,” Swenson told Columns Magazine, at the University of Washington. “I was going through a pretty rough time, and the VA was prescribing pills and they weren’t really working.

“I started volunteering out here and just fell in love with farming. Now I’ve actually quit my last med.”

While riding herd on the veggies, Swenson is a principal participant in a Seattle University study of the combined effect of hands-in-the-dirt farming and strong group interaction. Researchers want to know why mental and emotional problems diminish when the members of Growing Veterans make friends with soil and seeds, kale and kohlrabi, and each other. They plan to publish their findings in July.

Meanwhile, without scientific proof, the warrior farmers on Starbird Road could hardly be more certain of their own recovery and what brings it about.

“Look at it this way,” Holzemer says, “bringing life out of the ground is a great antidote for having put a life into the ground.”

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