Soldiers find meaning, peace in ag

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a four-part series on the experiences U.S. military veterans in the Mid-Atlantic region have had starting farm businesses.)

AFP Correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Some see a deep chasm between the battlefield and a farm field, where others see a fine line.
A small but growing number of veterans are seeing farming as a way to continue their patriotic service and satisfy a sense of mission.
“The importance of agricultural work is attractive to men and women who went into service,” said Michael O’Gorman founder of Farmer Veteran Coalition. “They’re attracted to the hard work and difficulties. And it gives them a sense of being a part of something greater than themselves.”
O’Gorman, who has more than 40 years of farming experience himself, doesn’t sugar coat the realities of farming.
There are some, he says, who see agriculture as a bucolic and peaceful lifestyle.
But there’s a joke that he tells veterans, “if you didn’t have PTSD before (you started farming), just give it a few years.”
Bob Miller is an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq before returning to his family’s farm in Caroline County to start a micro-creamery with his wife Jaclynne.
He says he was always proud of the fact that he grew up on a farm and appreciated how it made him different.
But being in dangerous situations in another country made him realize that his motivation to return to the farm wasn’t just about carrying on a family legacy.
“When you’re in a combat situation, you have a profound sense that life is very fleeting. It makes you realize that you have to do something with the time you have,” Miller said. “It motivates you to make your own stamp, because you are aware of how fragile life can be.”
It’s hard for Miller and his comrades to mask the frustration in their voices when they talk about the current situations in the Middle East.
They said farming seems to be almost a therapy for them — a way to regain control and put their skills to good use.
“There’s a different feeling of gratitude when you build something yourself or do something yourself. At the basic level, it’s about producing your own food and being able to feed your own family,” said Shaun Alf, a 15-year National Guard veteran who runs Cheerful Chicken Farm near Petersburg, Va.
Even before he went into the military, Shaun Alf said he wanted to be a farmer.
Through the military, Alf was able to travel around the world and pursue a master’s degree in business communications.
Now, he is taking those experiences and bringing them into the dream farm that he and his wife always imagined.
Alf’s measurement for success is not just production per acre, he added, but the connections he can make within his community and relationships he can forge with those who buy the food he grows.
In the military, soldiers rarely work alone. They’re usually in units or divisions with groups of men and women working together on a shared mission.
Veterans said they seek that same sense of community when they enter into an agricultural career.
Like Justen Garrity of Veteran Compost in Aberdeen, Md. When he left the military, he had a hard time finding a job, despite the fact that he had achieved an award-winning career in the Army.
When he decided to launch his own business, he made employing veterans a central part of the company’s mission. On his website, he lists “employing veterans and their family members” above his business’ mission, “turning food scraps into high quality compost.”
“The first two years, it was just me and a shovel,” Garrity said. Now, he works alongside four full-time employees with another six to eight part-time workers.
Garrity said his business has been mostly self-taught and he freely shares information with other young farmers and veterans who are thinking about starting a compost business. “I try as much as possible to send the elevator back down. At least once a week, I hear from another veteran who wants to get into the business.”
Denise Hudson and her husband David said they also try and offer as much support as they can to young farmers, especially veterans.
Their farm, Hudson Heritage Farm, is located in South Boston, Va., with several military bases within a few hour’s drive.
Both Hudsons served in the Air Force and then the Army National Guard. David Hudson’s military career spanned nearly four decades.
He was the second-ever Senior Enlisted Advisor for the National Guard Bureau from 2006 to 2009.
David officially retired from the Alaska National Guard in 2012 to join his wife on the farm.
Denise said what they get from farming is, “very gratifying. You get to see first hand results of long days and hard work.”
Maryland dairyman Miller muses that farming is an excellent career option for post combat veterans. “I think if there were more farmers, the world would be better off,” he said. “I have a very rewarding lifestyle. Many of our great military leaders were farmers. Being able to find something and make it your own can be very soothing to a combat vet.”