Healing fields. Thatís what some U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq are dreaming about, ahead of their return home. “I think the thought, the yearning of it gives them peace,” Michael O’Gorman, the founder and executive director of the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, told me (see video interview below). Meanwhile, “the agricultural community is so in need of them: there are eight times more farmers over the age of 65 as under 35,” he added.
Like many organizations out there, the Farmer-Veteran Coalition is determined that the tragedy endured by Vietnam vets, who came home to nothing and to no one, does not repeat itself — they still make the bulk of the 300,000 homeless veterans in the country. Today, 35 percent of all vets are unemployed. To more and more people (farmers and vets alike), transitioning from the military to the farm seems an obvious and relatively seamless way to ease back into civilian life. The work is physically demanding and the mission is clear: providing food security for American communities by growing the local food supply.
Moreover, the enlistment rate among young adults in rural America is significantly higher than in urban areas, according to a study released in 2006 by the Carsey Institute, a think tank at the University of New Hampshire. A sobering indicator is the discrepancy between the mortality rate for soldiers from rural America and the mortality rate for soldiers from metropolitan areas: the former is 60 percent higher.
Michael O’Gorman and his crew have already helped about 100 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on their path to a life of farming, including half-a-dozen wounded soldiers who made it back to their family farms. They are currently supporting about another 100 of them, and they keep hearing from more every day.
“They helped me a great deal, including providing me with free accommodation when I needed it,” says Matthew McCue, an Iraq veteran who is farming 15 acres in California for the third year with his girlfriend Lily Schneider. Their focus is vegetables and they intend to grow their CSA program from 150 to 220 members this coming season.
Matthew grew up in Albuquerque, NM. Drawn to an unusual lifestyle, he decided to join the Army rather than go to college. Observing Iraqi farmers tend to their crops through the upheaval of Saddham Hussein’s demise and the ensuing chaos inspired him. “While unemployed police were starving, they just kept doing what they had always done, trucking their pomegranates to market as if nothing was happening. Farming gave them something to think about and something to do,” he told me. “I had thought I would work for the government for the rest of my life, but then I started questioning the inherent instability of all these institutions. By contrast, nothing seemed more reliable than the soil beneath our feet,” he added.
Four years of active duty under his belt, Sergeant McCue came back to America and left the Infantry to go farming. He WWOOFed in Hawaii, graduated from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (UC Santa Cruz), spent one year in Niger with the Peace Corps, before coming back to California to put his knowledge to work.
For more about the Farmer-Veteran Coalition and the work they do with veterans, watch this interview with Michael O’Gorman:
Image: Iraq vet Matt McCue on his farm Shooting Star CSA.