In late 2006, Susan Grimm received orders from the US Army for deployment to Iraq. Just one year earlier, she and her husband Bob, a Vietnam US Army veteran with 20 years of service, had established a 20 acre poultry, livestock and vegetable farm, Grimm Acres, Diversified in southeastern Illinois.

Susan and Bob spent the time prior to her deployment “hunkering down,” figuring out how Bob would temporarily manage without his wife. He did so with the help of his family and friends, as Susan served in Iraq as a nurse in the Army Nurse Corp (2007-2008) as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Bob was glad when Susan returned. So was she.

“I love life on the farm,” she says. “It sets my mind free from the images that months spent working in Intensive Care Units in Iraq planted there.”

New Life Farm_Cory Bryk

Like her fellow veterans, Susan is astutely brave and deeply disciplined. She is hard-working, self-directed and comfortable with leadership and risk – characteristics she developed in the military that make her a successful farmer today.

“I am truly challenged by the requirement of being consistent,” she says. “Some days I can hardly meet my own needs, but I still manage to provide for my animals.”

Indeed, farm work is demanding. Only 1% of the US population claims farming as an occupation. There are long hours, typically low pay and success is dependent on internal motivation and a desire to serve others. But the US desperately needs farmers. The country is facing an agricultural “graying affect”: farmers are getting older – 60% of US farmers are at least 55 years old – and not enough young people are replacing them.

Meanwhile, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Gulf War II era veterans – military veterans who served on active duty in the US Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 in Iraq, Afghanistan or both (which would make them at least 30-years-old) – had an unemployment rate of 10.9% in August 2012, compared to 8.1 % of the civilian population.

Understandably, many servicemen find returning to civilian life challenging. The military provides structure, social circles and financial support. On leaving the military, these things are variably lost. On top of that, many veterans are living with wounds – both visible and invisible – that affect their life and plans.

Gilliard Farm_Althea Raiford“As a veteran, you are not the same when you come home, whether you have seen combat or not,” says Althea Raiford, co-owner of Gilliard Farms, and a US Navy veteran.

For some veterans, beginning (or returning to) a career in agriculture can provide a rediscovery of purpose and fulfillment, while helping to alleviate the crisis of aging farmers and unemployment. The Military cultivates skills that rely on physical strength, hyper-awareness, engineering and multi-tasking which are a boon to agriculture. Could more veterans be encouraged to become farmers?

“When young returning veterans take on the responsibility of providing food for their communities, they are meeting a need just as important as our military provides,” says Cory Bryk, founder and farmer of New Life Farm in Boone, North Carolina, and a US Marine Corps veteran. “While you’re not in uniform or carrying a weapon, agriculture is vital to a society’s existence. Without farmers, people do not have food, and people need food just as much as they need to be protected.”

The Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) was founded by farmer Michael O’Gorman to mobilise military veterans to feed America.  Through a strong network of agricultural leaders and investors, the FVC works to encourage collaboration between farming and military communities, and then provides resources, funding and education.

New Life Farm_Cory Bryk and family

With the help of the FVC and other government and nonprofit organisations, hundreds of veterans have returned home to family farms, while others began from scratch. FVC currently has a network of 700 veterans from Vietnam to the present, in 48 US states.

The food coming from the farmers in the FVC network is impressive. Frank Golbeck and his business partner, Joe Colangelo (both US Navy veterans), started Golden Coast Mead in Oceanside, California and the FVC awarded a grant to expand their beekeeping operation. Benjamin Riker (US National Guard) grows organic cranberries with his father on James Lake Farms in Three Lakes, Wisconsin –  O’Gorman helped him to expand his professional network. Christine and Mike Hoolihan (US National Guard and US Marine Corp, respectively) operate the 9 acre Ocho Verde Farm in Vacaville, California. The Hoolihans received their first tractor from the FVC, and their figs are purchased by the likes of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse.

Despite veterans and farmers sharing many personality traits, there is a big difference between the two professions:

“In the military, especially if you are in the infantry, the focus is usually on destroying something,” says Bryk. “In farming, the focus is on cultivating the world around you.”

Most veterans have seen death: of structures, governments, ideas and even people. These realities and memories can have traumatic effects on servicemen. Agriculture, though there are deaths and losses here too, is primarily about creating life. It has the potential to be healing.

“The value of life has new meaning after you experienced its loss so often and so casually. Agriculture is solid, real, natural and welcoming,” says Grimm.

Alix Blair, a filmmaker, spent the last several years telling stories of veterans who found their way into farming. In 2006, when Blair was studying agriculture in Santa Cruz, California, she met a veteran in his early 20s who had just returned home from serving in Iraq.

Cory_New_Life_Farm_Portraits-3 (1)

Cory Bryk

“He talked of seeing farmers’ markets for the first time soldiering over there and how much it affected him to see people working the land in spite of such a devastating war. He came back wanting to be a farmer, seeing that kind of power, as he called it, to survive and sustain,” says Blair.

The solider piqued her interest, and she made a radio story about him. A few years later, Blair met another veteran farmer named Alex Sutton, and was compelled to tell his intense story through an intimate documentary film called Farmer Veteran. It shows in living color what it takes for veterans to embrace life and peace after devastating losses. Sutton’s story will move the world.

Blair, with co-director Jeremy Lange, and the production company Vittles Films, hope that people will become aware of farmer veterans in their area. She wants to use the film’s website to establish a mentorship network for veterans who want to work in agricultural, whether by owning their own farms or working for others and help restaurants and co-producers locate veteran farmers from which to purchase food.

“Alex talked often of the fact that he went into the military to serve, and now he desperately wants to find a way to keep serving,” says Blair. “A lot of veterans I’ve spoken with articulate this desire. I think agriculture is one of many ways to fill that need. I’m not saying it’s the only way, but Alex, for example, says he could never ever work in an office.”

Photographs from top to bottom: Frank Golbeck: Golden Coast Mead, Cory Bryk: New Life Farm, Althea Raiford: Gillard Farms, Cory Bryk and family, 

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