Of the eight men standing in the field, seven had once served in the armed forces. The “odd man out” worked for the farm currently being tended to, and the veterans were content to follow his lead. It was 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, and tomatoes were the name of the game. Several of the men stacked the brightly colored fruits into the folds of their shirts to bundle as many as they could carry before walking to a bin and unloading. Later in the afternoon, they would wash the produce and prepare it for distribution as part of their participation with Veterans to Farmers.
A nonprofit organization, Veterans to Farmers offers a 12-week transitional program that provides prior service members with a basic background in agriculture, as well as practical hands-on experience in the field. The program also introduces veterans to a career choice that is closely tied to others’ service.
“I think that any person that was in the military, most of the time they didn’t join because they were interested in being selfish,” said Richard Murphy, the program manager and former security forces senior airman. “It’s a very non-selfish choice to go into the military. They wanted to pay it forward somehow, or they wanted to be a positive influence, whatever that may be.”
A program participant and former Navy machinist mate second class submariner, Thomas Dalbec, remarked that although the agricultural program is specifically geared toward teaching service members, ultimately the course could help create a mutually beneficial relationship between veteran farmers and society as a whole. The course provides the former Airmen, Marines, Sailors and Soldiers with a skill set they could use to produce food for people within their neighboring communities.
“It’s a continual service of your country is kind of how I see it,” Dalbec said. “You’re doing it at a community level when you become an urban farmer. I joined the service because it wasn’t necessarily something that I felt obligated to, but I knew it was a greater cause than myself, which I wanted to experience. I’ve been out for almost 14 years now, and I continually look for ways to get that same sort of feeling, like I’m contributing to the greater good. Farming, I think, provides that.”
Veterans to Farmers has an impact beyond a traditional transition program for military members leaving the service. Farming can also function as a form of therapy for veterans who are in a dark place or those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the program manager said.
Murphy recently received an email from a local veteran who said he’d always had an interest in agriculture, but it wasn’t until his military brother committed suicide that he decided to pursue a slot in the program. He said that was the moment he realized there were still a lot of things he and his friends were dealing with, and maybe farming would be a good way to start working through them.
“I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten in regards to people who’ve had friends that have killed themselves … it’s beyond important to find a way to address it,” Murphy said. “I don’t think anything should be overlooked in the context of helping.”
Several veterans going through the farming program said they see agriculture as a viable means to deescalate away from everyday stressors.
“It changes the way you see the world,” Murphy explained. “It changes the way you feel about yourself. You can’t stand around in a garden and feel like life is just collapsing around you because it’s growing everywhere.”
Created by Marine Corps veteran Buck Adams, Veterans to Farmers teaches many topics, such as the benefits of cover crops and how nitrogen levels in the soil affect plant growth. The program is continually evolving and growing in scope through requests from the veterans who attend it.
“We started out in controlled environmental agriculture,” Murphy said. “That’s just a big fancy (phrase) for greenhouse growing. But we got approached by a lot of veterans that were interested in traditional farming as well, so we started looking for partnerships to make that happen.”
This year, Veterans to Farmers formed a new partnership and is currently running a conjunctive effort with the Denver Botanic Garden’s Chatfield Veteran Reintegration Program in Colorado. Together, the two organizations can demonstrate ways farmers can impact the local area and provide experience with running a Community Supported Agriculture farm, where individuals invest in the crops for a share of the produce grown.
The most recent outdoor course began in August with the participants each getting to plant their own row of seeds, after which they were taught to tend and harvest produce. During this time, the program also provided moments of book-learning through short bouts of classroom instruction.
Each day, Dalbec said he found himself observing new practices he could add to his mental playbook to take out and apply when and if he chose to start his own farm. One such area of understanding he found valuable was the makeup of different soils.
“Just figuring out what it takes to make something grow is a whole science in and of itself,” he said. “Soil doesn’t have a lot of organic material in it, especially when it’s been farmed before, so you have to do a lot of testing to figure out what nutrients you need to add, what it’s capable of bearing as is, and then from there decide what crops you want to produce. There are a lot of decisions to make, such as: Will people eat it? Will it do well at market? Is it worth the amount of effort you have to put into it?”
While with the program, the veterans were able to aid in food distribution. Some of the produce harvested was disseminated within the farm’s CSA while another portion went to human services buildings to be sold at a lower price to individuals on food assistance. More than 4,000 pounds of food from the Denver Botanical Gardens in Chatfield were sold to those on food assistance this year, Murphy said.
A social worker for eight years, Murphy has an intimate familiarity with the struggles that come from being on food assistance.
“You’d see somebody get 100 bucks that was diabetic, and they were required to figure out how to eat healthy for a month on $100,” he said. “I mean, that’s Ramen noodles and baked potatoes, which are not very healthy. So for every one dollar in food stamps they spend on our food, they get two dollars’ worth of food. The idea was that we could reduce that price and kind of make our way into these food deserts to ensure some of these people are getting healthier food.”
A “food desert” is an area that lacks resources to grow local food. There may be some grocery store availability, but even with that, generally, the food is sourced from such a distance that it is no longer fresh by the time it arrives and is put up for sale.
Twice a week the veterans rotate responsibilities for managing food stands that sell within Denver’s food deserts.
“The few farmers markets that I’ve gone to in those areas have been fascinating – to get to know these people … and then they are always about sharing their stories,” Dalbec said of the farmers markets’ patrons. “You’re instantly connected with them because you are providing something they need. It’s almost like the best handshake you can give somebody is to give them food, and that opens up so many doors between you and them.
“You see that sort of communal coming together over something as simple as food, which turns into conversation, which then turns into helping your neighbors.”
As autumn approached, the change in seasons signaled an impending close to Colorado’s farming prospects. In response, the small group of men at Chatfield Farms remained hard at work as they gathered much of the fall’s harvest. In the span of a day, they traversed between rows of tomatoes, peppers and okra, plucking the now-ripened produce and putting it into containers for transport.
Though they neared an end of sorts, for the veterans still working diligently in the dirt, it was also a time of new beginnings.
With only four weeks left to their training, many of the veterans had already begun to shape their plans for the future using what they had learned. The group’s end-of-course ambitions ranged from person to person. For some, the goal became to start a farm of their own, and for others it was also about teaching, passing on the knowledge they had been given.
“We’ve just been getting educated,” said Dan Nichols, a program participant. “I haven’t been teaching and sharing what I’ve learned yet, but I would like to. I’m from Arizona, so I’d love to go there and show people that you can grow stuff anywhere. You can improve the soil, and you can make the changes wherever you are.”
For the former senior airman, his transition from active duty is nearly complete – he is a veteran with dreams to farm. And through the “hand-up” he was given from Veterans to Farmers, he is confident that dream may someday become a reality. Although he is no longer active duty, Nichols has found a way to serve.
“It’s 100 percent giving,” Nichols said of farming. “There’s nothing selfish about it – you’re always receiving and everyone’s winning. Farming is why we are all here, why we are all alive: because somebody grew something somewhere.”