Monday, May 12, 2014

How One California Farm Will Provide Organic Vegetables and Hope for Veterans

by Nomad

One farm in Monterey County California offers an example of a innovative idea to help US veterans transition back into civilian life. By providing vocational agriculture training, such farms can provide fresh food for the local community.
More importantly, it offers them a safe place among like-minded to begin a long healing process.

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wound down, President Obama faced  a challenge that his predecessor never had to worry about: How to find work of millions of veterans returning home in an already-depressed economy. So that was no small feat and some steady progress has been made.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures released in March of this year, the unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces (at any time since September 2001) edged down to 9.0 percent in 2013.

And where there is unemployment, there is homelessness. At one point, around 2006, one in four homeless Americans was a veteran. Those numbers have been in steady decline due to an improved economy and increased funding to those on the streets. Although the situation might have improved, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said last year that the Obama Administration goals remain the same: to eliminate the problem by the end of 2015.
That won't be won't be easy.
While there is still so much more that needs to be done for those who risked life and limb,  that duty is much harder when partisanship seems to cripple progress in Washington.
The shameful fact is that now that the veterans are no longer so vital to the defense of the nation, many  legislators in the capitol have turned their backs.

A Veterans bill,  a sweeping $21 billion bill that would have expanded medical, educational and other benefits for veterans, was derailed in the Senate in February this year  by the Republicans. They dismissed the legislation as election year campaign and an example of unnecessary and excessive spending.  
That's why, despite the discouraging lack of significant progress, it was it was inspiring to read about one small project on the other side of the nation.

Farming the Pastures of Heaven
A pair of Marine Corps veterans in California, John Wagner and Bryan Showalter, are business partners in a venture which may offer one answer to the problem. 
Their 20-acre Semper Fresh Farm, located in Corral de Tierra in Monterey CountyCalifornia, is part commercial farm and part vocational training for veterans.  
The project which opened last week, is still operating on a rather small scale. The initial market for their organic heirloom tomatoes will be at the farm, as well as local restaurants and other farmers' markets in the area. Once the farm is open to the public later this year, visitors will be able to  this year for the public to come and harvest the 100% organically-grown tomatoes. Picking off the vine is about as close to fresh as you can possibly be. 
The farm is located in Steinbeck country, and provides the setting for stories in his book  The Pastures of Heaven
Can't get a better advertisement than that.

*   *    *

The use of horticulture therapy is also the idea behind Hope Farms in Tennessee. Organization founder Bob Mims is specially reaching out to veterans suffering with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Farming is, in his opinion, the best way of healing.
Unquestionably, the organization's goals are ambitious but then looking at the quality of the people in involved, they are also not at all unattainable.
  • Having disabled veterans grow and sell fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, U-pick and commercial markets, also, develop organic, hydroponic, aquaculture, and bamboo farms. This will help them to become more comfortable socializing with the public.
  • To show the public that veterans and disabled veterans can be successful working in the civilian world.
  • To educate the community about the health benefits of eating organic food. We want to follow a model that will help create a healthier nation. Who better to lead the way than our Nation’s veterans?
  • To provide a combination of work, therapy, education and socialization to help veterans reintegrate into society through sustainable agriculture training.
  • To coordinate with the Veterans Affairs (WTP) work therapy program.
  • To have a funding program to support "Hope Farms" without taking any type of grant from the Federal Government. 
Hope Farms' motto is SAEPE EXPERTUS, SEMPER FIDELIS, FRATRES AETERNI which translates from Latin to mean:  
Often Tested, Always Faithful, Brothers Forever

Not a Handout, But A Down Payment on a Debt
While Semper Fresh Farms is a non-profit organization, its creators want to be self-sustaining. In fact, the business model has two-fold benefits. 
Farmers as a demographic are fading away. The average age of farmers across the country is on the rise. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 60% of the farmers here are 55 years or older. As one source notes, "the graying of the farm population has led to concerns about the long-term health of family farms as an American institution."

Wagner and Showalter's idea was to provide training and employment for veterans who are adapting to civilian life. According to an article in The Californian:
Service members leaving the military and adjusting back into civilian life will have the chance to effectively re-learn how to work in a non-military environment.
So that local agriculture companies can make tax-deductible donations, the project is partnered with the Farmer Veteran Coalition, That organization is designed to mobilize veterans to feed America. According to its mission statement:
We cultivate a new generation of farmers and food leaders, and develop viable employment and meaningful careers through the collaboration of the farming and military communities. We believe that veterans possess the unique skills and character needed to strengthen rural communities and create sustainable food systems for all. We believe that food production offers purpose, opportunity, as well as physical and psychological benefits.
Guidance is also provided by Veterans Transition Center in Marina. The mission of this organization is to provide services for Monterey County's homeless veterans and their families. 
Helping these servicemen and women get off the street is not giving them a handout, it is merely providing a down payment on a debt that can never adequately be repaid.
The people of Monterrey County should be proud of their civic groups. If only all counties around the country could be so lucky.

Finding A Safe Place
John Wagner, a former captain in the Marine Corps, served a tour in the notoriously violent Anbar Province in eastern Iraq in 2009. Since that time, he earned a MBA on his GI bill. 
He explained to a local reporter how this project will benefit the community at large.
“Not only will this be a great opportunity for students and families to learn more about farming and agriculture... it will also be a fantastic opportunity to teach vocational skills to our veterans in Monterey County’s largest industry, agriculture.”
Speaking from experience, he said that one of the first challenges for veterans is simply learning to smile again.
“Sometimes we are intense individuals and driven,” Wagner said. “A lot of guys come out like robots, not a lot of smiling. Yet in a business environment like customer service or retail you have to smile. I love to smile, but it took me a while to feel comfortable. People would say, ‘John you should be smiling,’ but when you first get out it’s hard to emote that. It’s seen as weakness.”
However, he stresses that the farm isn't meant to be an emotional rehabilitation center. If that happens naturally, fine. Undoubtedly, Wagner thinks, being surrounded by fellow veterans will provide a safe environment during the adjustment. 
According to the article:
“Every one of us are damaged in one way or another,” Wagner said. “I’ve gone through it and Bryan’s gone through it. The adjustment is easier when you are surrounded by like-minded people who are undergoing the same struggles. Working here will be a safe place where they can get their hands dirty and learn a vocation.”
He believes that for returning veterans without a degree the options are limited but  vocational training in agriculture at Semper Fresh (and other similar projects) can be great step forward in the long road to employment integration.

The business partners have some big plans for their real estate. Although the initial crop was heirloom tomatoes, the project will include some fruit and trees, already on the leased property. Later, they say, if things go well, the farm will also produce walnuts, quince, pomegranates, raspberries, pears, plums, apricots, table grapes, herbs, olives, kale and broccoli. All of which will be organic.

We wish them the best of luck.