Cultivating veterans: finding peace with a hoe and pitchfork
Military veterans on the Olympic Peninsula are healing invisible wounds of war by digging in the dirt. They are part of a trend taking root across the country called agrotherapy, which helps veterans not only overcome difficulties like post-traumatic stress syndrome but also gain skills to help support themselves and their families.
For a growing number of veterans, farming and gardening offer an opportunity for healing through physical work, connecting with nature, and often giving back to their communities by donating the fruits of their labor to food banks. The chance to do physical work alongside fellow military vets and family members in a welcoming environment is also good medicine for the isolation that many veterans experience after returning to civilian life.
At Robin Hill Veteran Gardens near Sequim, Wash., veterans and their families are getting a chance to grow food but are reaping more than carrots and cucumbers. The three-acre site is a project of the Green Alliance for Veterans Education.
“There’s not a lot of nurturing during war,” said Jeff Reyes, a veteran who is also a counselor and board member of the Green Alliance for Veterans Education. “But here’s a chance to nurture something alongside your family, a chance to be in a peaceful environment and to help something grow.”
Reyes believes there’s healing in watching what you’ve planted grow and seeing the rewards of your efforts in tomatoes, pumpkins, and potatoes.
“We didn’t want these veterans to fail so we approached WSU Extension to help them learn about farming and gardening,” Reyes said.
Last spring, a handful of veterans and their families took WSU Extension’s Cultivating Success course on sustainable ranching and farming as part of the farming and gardening project near Sequim. In addition, WSU Extension Master Gardeners were on site during the growing season to help the aspiring farmers and gardeners. Clea Rome is the director of WSU Clallam County Extension and taught the course with Master Gardener Program coordinator, Laurel Moulton.
“Some of the veterans and their families were brand new to farming and the Master Gardeners were really helpful for them. Some already had farming experience and were further down the road with thinking about a farm business so they benefited from the course,” Rome said.
A farm of their own
Veterans with all levels of farming experience and diverse military service participated in the program. Dan Cutts’ service in the US Navy from 1974 to 1978 allowed him and his wife Barb to take the Cultivating Success course through a scholarship from the Haller Foundation offered only to veterans.
“We had wanted to take the class for a while, but couldn’t afford it,” said Barb Cutts. “So, the scholarship was the answer for us. The class gave us many things, but the confidence that we are on the right track and a network of like-minded people is invaluable.”
The Cutts are raising Tamworth pigs that get to roam freely in their forest. Their goal is to establish a thriving micro-farm that will continue beyond their lifetimes:“One that can provide a bit of everything, from produce raised in our gardens to fruit from the orchard, to a healthy meat source from animals who get to ‘leap for joy’,” Barb Cutts said.
According to lead farm manager Derrell Sharp, Brian Kneidel, who is retired from the US Air Force, and his family learned to farm at the Robin Hill Veterans Farm. Kneidel took to farming so well that he now serves as the assistant farm manager alongside Sharp. The garden is a partnership between the Green Alliance for Veterans Education, WSU Extension, Clallam County Parks, and the Albert Haller Foundation.
In Port Townsend, Liz Rivera Goldstein, a graduate of the WSU Extension Cultivating Success course offered by WSU Jefferson County Extension and a long-time peace educator and activist, is in the planning stages of creating an agricultural training program for veterans.
The program at her Peace Patch Farm will provide housing and a part-time salary for hired veterans, and also pay for them to take Cultivating Success courses. Veterans will learn all aspects of growing and marketing the farm’s flowers, herbs, and produce which will be sold to help sustain the program or donated to the local food bank.
“Our hope is that those who work on the farm can find peace and healing,” Goldstein said. “We want to help vets develop skills to start their own farming project, to find work on a farm so they can support themselves and their families, or to simply grow food for themselves.”
In western Washington, a handful of similar programs that connect veterans to agriculture are getting established. According to the national Veteran Farming Coalition, veterans’ farm programs are now established in 48 states. Such programs offer hope and healing for veterans and their families, many of whom originally come from rural areas, but they can also strengthen rural communities and local, sustainable food systems.
Cultivating Success was created in response to growing demand for education focused on small-acreage, sustainable agriculture and ranching. Courses are offered by WSU Extension throughout the state of Washington. For more information, visit www.cultvatingsuccess.org.
Read this story and other stories in an upcoming issue of ReConnect. Subscribe here.
Innovators 2014: Quinoa takes Seattle
Entering the quinoa greenhouse on the Washington State University campus in Pullman, the first thing you notice is the color. Row after row of tall plants grow in a shifting rainbow of yellow, orange, rose, purple, and green.
The multihued nursery is the hub of an international research effort led by plant breeder Kevin Murphy. Here, under bright lamps, the tiny seeds of a future industry have taken hold with gusto.
Kevin Murphy will present the WSU Innovator’s Lecture in Seattle on April 24th. His talk will explore WSU’s efforts to help establish a quinoa production center in the Pacific Northwest—creating a new industry and spurring local economy.
“Washington is fortunate to have a climate conducive to the production of the highest quality quinoa … but the industry is still in its infancy,” says Murphy, assistant professor in the WSU Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.
Quinoa is sensitive to environmental variations, changing its growing patterns in response to small differences in moisture, temperature, and soil conditions. In its native habitat in the Andes, that adaptability has resulted in hundreds of distinct varieties of Chenopodium quinoa. Revered for its ability to thrive where water is scarce and soil so salty little else would grow, the Inca called quinoa “chisaya mama” or the mother of all grains.
Today, U.S. consumers are having a love affair with the ancient grain. Quinoa imports have soared, rising from about four million pounds in 2007 to 73 million pounds in 2013. Cost has also skyrocketed as producers can’t keep up with international demand. All of which has attracted the interest of Pacific Northwest growers.
“Quinoa has the potential to increase options for regional farmers as well as to address global food security,” says Murphy. The United Nations agreed, designating 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. In conjunction with the International Year, WSU hosted the International Quinoa Research Symposium that drew more than 150 participants from 25 countries last August.
Quinoa is widely viewed as having the potential to be grown extensively around the globe and could take a bite out of world hunger. According to WSU dietician, Janet Beary, quinoa is an easy-to-cook grain substitute that contains all essential amino acids, making it a complete source of protein. It is also rich in magnesium, iron, copper, phosphorous, calcium, fiber, and starch.
Murphy points out that WSU has a full-spectrum approach to quinoa and alternative crop research. WSU agronomists are working around the world to learn how quinoa will grow under a wide variety of conditions; food scientists are investigating methods of processing and preparation; and social scientists are inquiring about the potential for cultural adoption of quinoa as a substitute for corn.
“We’re also working hard to make sure we do right by the Andean farmers who are the original source of this grain,” Murphy says. Murphy and his colleagues from the Andean countries are looking at fair trade policies and plant identity protections to ensure that indigenous farmers reap their share of the quinoa boom.
Funded by a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Murphy and his team are testing over 1000 quinoa varieties under a number of Washington farming systems and bioregions. Collaborating with local growers who plant quinoa test plots, he has demonstrated that the climate and soils of the state are well suited to quinoa cultivation.
One goal of the program is to develop quinoa varieties adaptable for each region of the state. For example, trials in western Washington show the need for plants resistant to downy mildew and pre-harvest sprouting. In the central Columbia Basin, heat tolerance is important. On the Palouse, Murphy’s team is searching for varieties that thrive without irrigation.
A significant challenge in developing quinoa’s full economic potential in the Pacific Northwest is the lack of a quinoa processing center. Each grain of quinoa is coated with a bitter soapy substance, called saponin, which is inedible and mildly toxic but can be removed during processing. In an effort to combine research and education, Murphy is looking to establish a prototype processing facility on WSU’s organic teaching farm in Pullman. The “farm-to-fork” facility would include a food lab where students and faculty from WSU’s extensive food science program could develop new quinoa-based recipes and products.
Once this critical link in the quinoa production chain has been established, Murphy says the results of the research program “will have an immediate positive impact on current and future quinoa farmers of Washington State. We are well placed to establish the Pacific Northwest as the premier quinoa production region in the U.S.”
This article was adapted from the original in WSU News, here.
The WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources regularly posts on their CSANR Blog. You can join the discussion and view posts, here. This month Andrew McGuire, irrigated cropping systems agronomist, discusses improving on nature when designing agricultural systems.
Behind many efforts to make agriculture more sustainable is the idea that our farming systems need to be more like nature. According to agroecologist Miguel Alteri, “By designing farming systems that mimic nature, optimal use can be made of sunlight, soil nutrients, and rainfall.” This strategy arises from a long history of thinking that there exists a “balance of nature.” This idea has greatly influenced how we look at nature and agriculture. In the latter case, it drives much of what is done in organic farming and agroecology, but also finds its way into no-till farming. Nonetheless, it is false, and because it is false we can abandon the restrictive “nature knows best” argument in designing agricultural systems. Instead, we can improve on nature. Read more.
Straight from the Experts
Day-neutral strawberries with repeat flowering have a long production season, making them highly suitable for fresh market sales and allowing harvest of high-quality berries over a period spanning four to five months. The value of fresh-market strawberries in Washington and Oregon increased 144% between 2000 and 2012, and producers and commodity groups are preparing for further growth, which is favored by strong consumer interest in local foods and health benefits of berry fruits. This publication introduces day-neutral strawberry production to commercial growers who are interested in exploiting the long season and fresh market capability of day-neutral strawberries.
Written by WSU scientists Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt and Thomas Waltersat, this free publication is available online, here.
Beneficial Insects, Spiders, and Other Mini-Creatures in Your Garden
An ecologically healthy garden or landscape hosts a diverse array of insects, spiders, mites, centipedes, and harvestmen—each with a unique, and usually beneficial, role in keeping your outdoor habitat healthy and functioning efficiently.
This colorful publication provides photographs and describes the life cycles and beneficial activities of the “good guys” and “natural enemies” that inhabit garden landscapes in the PNW.
Written by WSU entomologist David James, this free publication is available online, here.