Soil Heals:

The Vermont Farmer Veteran Coalition

Photo of Jon courtesy of Jon Turner

Written By

Laura Sorkin

Written on

February 22 , 2017

When you speak with Jon Turner about his diversified farm in Bristol, he talks about the same things many other organic farmers do: the cohesion between species, the value of biodiversity, soil health. His earthy demeanor is nearly the opposite of what you might imagine when you picture a buttoned-up solider of the U.S. Army.

But Jon was indeed a soldier, completing three tours, one in Haiti and two in Iraq, and he is the first to tell you that farming and being a solider have more in common than you might initially presume. With each, there is tough, physical work required every day, often in challenging conditions, and there is no handbook for coping with unexpected adverse situations that require on-the-spot problem solving. Yet in a key way, farming and military service differ—one is combative, the other nurturing—and for this reason, farming can offer a salve for returning vets who have more than just physical wounds.

Jon was the first president of the Vermont chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), which was launched to provide a pathway for returning vets to enter the business of agriculture. Currently the Vermont FVC has 65 members, and Vermont was one of the first three states to begin an FVC chapter. The national organization was started in 2008 by Michael O’Gorman of California who, although not a vet himself, believed in the potential for agriculture to provide vets with both employment and healing. He knew that veterans had the skills necessary for farming, and he wanted to share his experience and knowledge.

Michael began meeting with veterans’ groups and nonprofits to create an official organization. With the U.S. facing an aging farmer population and a wave of vets returning from the Middle East and looking for work, there was immediate interest on both the agricultural and government sides. In 2009, the USDA came on board as a partner, and a year later the FVC formed more partnerships with the American Farm Bureau, Farm Credit Council, and National Farmers Union.

Today the FVC has chapters across the country and many more sponsors. According to their website, their veteran members now total 4,500. “Of these, 72 percent have post 9-11 service, 20 percent are ethnic minorities, 16 percent are women, and a staggering 59 percent have service-connected disabilities.” The organization doesn’t give money directly to its members but provides grants through third parties for equipment and training. Since 2011, it has facilitated the transfer of $1,000,000 in support, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 per recipient. Grant providers for 2016 included the Bob Woodruff Foundation, Newman’s Own Foundation, Prairie Grove Farms, Prudential Financial, and Kubota Tractor Corporation.

The FVC has collected hundreds of stories of returning vets who have found a new life growing vegetables or commodity crops, or raising livestock. More important are the stories of the vets finding each other. Mark Bowen, the current president of the Vermont chapter of the FVC, says his original interest was to build a community of people with something in common.

“In active duty, you see everyone every day,” Mark says. “When you leave the military and come home, you don’t. Then in a rural area, it is even more isolating.”

Mark did a tour in Kuwait in 1997 and is still a captain in the Vermont Army National Guard. Although he grew up around agriculture in the Brattleboro area, he didn’t have much experience running a farm until he started as a hobbyist on his homestead in Putney with just a backyard flock of chickens. During the next few years he added lambs, pigs, turkeys, and cows. The family now runs a meat CSA and has even partnered up with friends who deliver fresh fish from Alaska.

He heard about the FVC’s work nationally when his wife pointed out that a chapter was starting in Vermont. He looked up Jon Turner and immediately signed on as one of the first board members.

“The support has been amazing,” he says. The organization has received funding and technical support from groups as diverse as the Vermont Department of Labor, the Vermont Farm Bureau, and Cabot Cheese. Last year the group received more than 3,000 packets of seeds from Vermont’s own High Mowing Seeds, and the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) has started to become involved.

The FVC also has a branding program called Homegrown by Heroes. The program is available to all members of the military who have moved into agriculture, and is intended to let consumers know that a product was grown or raised by a person who served their country. Mark wants to take the brand one step further and create a logo that reads, “Vermont Proud.”

Throughout the years, Mark has called on other members of the VT-FVC for advice. He says it’s valuable to know there is a community of vets who share your passion and whom you can turn to. “Like, Jon may know of classes or funding that I didn’t know about,” he said. When I asked him if farming helped him with some of the more emotional issues returning vets have, he hesitated.

“I didn’t think of it that way at first,” he says. “I don’t [have PTSD] personally but a lot of people do and I can sense the healing effects of farming.”

Jon Turner is very forthright about suffering trauma from his military experience. In Iraq he sustained two traumatic brain injuries within 14 hours and received a Purple Heart from a mortar blast in 2006. Upon his return, he tried art as a means of therapy but it wasn’t until he and his wife started a small garden plot at his place in Burlington that he found true healing.

“With all of the travels and stories and catharsis within art and poetry, there was still a large hole in my life,” he says. “Soil and plants seemed to fill that void quite tenderly and inspired my wife and I to grow our own food and raise a family. I realize that [when I’m] in the field or in a bed cultivating the soil with my bare hands, a difficult day—emotionally or mentally—is almost instantly dissolved, and there is a greater sense of clarity in my mind.”

Jon now has his own place in Bristol and stepped down as president of the Vermont FVC this past year. But he still acts as a director and active member, running what he calls the Veteran Regeneration Project on his farm. He offers classes to both vets and caregivers, inviting them to use farming as a means of therapy to help with reintegration and mitigation of trigger moments. He, too, says the greatest value of the FVC is the sense of community and camaraderie he finds when he gathers with fellow vets. He understands their issues, speaks their language, and offers farming as a lifeline that can help others the way it did him.

Staff Sergeant Zach Morris, who started a farm in Indiana, puts it beautifully in a video posted on the FVC website.
“I have not found anything remotely close to what farming provides as almost like a reset button for the human soul. What a lot of vets are finding is that a cubicle job is not bringing fulfillment to them.” Surrounded by young lambs and rolling green pastures, he says, “I didn’t know what peace was for a while. This is what I needed to heal.”

Mark Bowen intends to continue reaching out to more veterans and even hopes to offer internships on his own farm. He is in the process of finishing his home, and the plans include an apartment above the garage where people can stay and get on-farm experience. It speaks to the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of the military experience that in his plans for his own future he is including a means to help his fellow vets. Plans for the spring are a little up in the air, however, since there have been rumors of the redeployment of his unit.

Regardless of what he experiences in uniform overseas, when Mark returns, he has a farm to come home to, and a greater community of farmer-vets who will have his back.


About the Author

 Laura Sorkin

Laura Sorkin

Laura Sorkin lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children. She has run her own organic farm since 2001 and helps with her husband’s maple operation, Runamok Maple.

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