Last year was a historic one for veterans seeking a rehabilitative career path upon returning home from conflict zones. 2014's Farm Bill, which was a disappointment in some areas—notably when it comes to food stamps—recognized veterans as a distinct class of beginning farmers, creating a number of loans, outreach assistance, and training programs specifically available to vets interested in working the land. One program alone—the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)'s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program—allocates $5 million towards getting veterans the access to land and training that they'll need to start their own farms.
That legislation came as great news to Richard Murphy, program manager at Veterans to Farmers (VTF). Since 2011, VTF has trained American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan in its five-acre greenhouse in Denver, offering a 12-week program that provides vets with the essential knowledge needed to, one day, start their own farms.
Murphy is a 35-year-old Air Force vet who has been stationed both in Saudi Arabia as well as the US. When he left the military in 2004, he recommitted himself to an old passion—gardening—growing food for his family and neighbors in five raised beds outside his home in Colorado. Several years later, his wife—a fellow vet—found out about VTF, and the couple became heavily involved in the program, with Murphy eventually managing day to day operations. He says the therapeutic value of farming holds the biggest vocational appeal for vets, who suffer disproportionately from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Up to 20 percent of Iraqi war vets and up to 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan are afflicted by the disorder, but Murphy says farming can help.
"I think I heard it best from one vet who said, 'My job used to be to take life, and now it's to create life,'" he says. "That's a very self-rewarding process. And I think you're getting more sunlight! No one should be in a damn cubicle all day."
"I saw a study recently that said that putting your hands in the dirt on a regular basis actually increases your immune system, but also personal happiness," Murphy continues. "And I've always felt that way. Reconnecting with the earth on some level is therapeutic; it's very important for human beings to do that. And we live in a culture and society where that's just not as common anymore."
VTF put down roots in 2009, when Marine Corps vet Buck Adams established Circle Fresh Farms, a hydroponic, or Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), model that serves the Denver area. Adams made it a mission to hire fellow vets, eventually founding VTF specifically to train them inside the greenhouse. For Murphy, the parallels between military work and farming are apparent.
"Being willing to pay attention to detail on a very high level was a big one in the Air Force," he says. "And with plant production, there's a lot of that in it, because you have to pay attention to how that plant is growing."
Murphy notes that vets returning home from service often face big obstacles when it comes to rehabilitating, reentering society, and finding a job. And there's no magic bullet for how to help those vets achieve those goals.
"We can't effectively treat every single veteran with a monoculture method of treatment—getting them pills, going to see a counselor, and expecting that to work," he says. "Every veteran is unique. And so there has to be an opportunity for every veteran for something to strike him just right in order to help him out. For some people, that's farming."
VTF trainees mostly come from the Colorado area. They receive a $12 per hour stipend for the 15 hours of work they do in the greenhouse over the course of 12 weeks as they learn the basics of food production. Upon completing the course, veterans have the option of taking a six-week class for beginning farmers offered by Colorado State University. Murphy just completed that course. He and his wife are looking for land, and hope to open their own commercial greenhouse by the end of the year.
Since 2011, VTF has focused on CEA farming. Not only can greenhouses produce a large amount of food in a small area, but they're also well suited to the Colorado climate, where the growing season is only 22 weeks long. Greenhouses are capable of producing food year-round. But starting this year, VTF will partner with Denver Botanic Gardens to offer vets 12 weeks of training in conventional, land-based agriculture.
It's the same thing as food—you can't monoculture your food. You're bound for problems if you do.
"The idea is that we can offer different ways for that veteran to learn about agriculture that might be suitable for them," Murphy says. VTF released its 2015 application about two weeks ago, and Murphy has already received applications from 55 veterans, all the program has room for this year. He's confident that, especially in light of new Farm Bill legislation, opportunities for veteran farmers will spread. Organizations with similar missions to VTF's already exist, such as the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which is based in California but has regional chapters all over the country. Murphy wants to see more programs like those develop in coming years. He asserts that such programs can be a matter of life or death for veterans.
"I usually get on my soapbox about the suicide rate for veterans," he says. "Last year was a win-lose for us. There were some huge issues that were addressed about veterans, whether it was the Farm Bill or increased attention to how the VA treats veterans. But it also was bittersweet, because we found out that 22 veterans a day are killing themselves. And that is an absolutely staggering number."
"It's a very real number, and I think it's a clear indication that the way we have gone about treating veterans has not worked, and it's because we've had a monoculture approach," he continues. "It's the same thing as food—you can't monoculture your food. You're bound for problems if you do."
But Murphy—a third-generation member of the armed forces—sees an opportunity in farming, and in other veteran-run programs, to help reduce that figure.
"I think the positive side of that number is that people are going to be more motivated to seek out ways to stop it. It's not gonna be the VA's office, it's not gonna be our government. It's gonna be all these different approaches that give that veteran a place where they actually feel like they're part of something again. That's what's going to change that number."