Soil.

It’s deep, dark, moist, cool – and live-giving. It’s life-giving not only to plants, but also to human caregivers. As farmers will attest, it creates a sense of peace and hope.

And that’s what draws veterans – those on the frontlines of defense, on the frontlines of fear and the frontlines of nasty memories.

“Working in the soil – it’s life-giving,” said Betty Anderson, a veteran of almost 12 years in the Navy and now a farmer. “It’s kind of the circle-of-life thing. Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it doesn’t bear fruit. So the hard things in my life, as awful as those hard things are, we do some growing through them. There’s no traffic here (on the farm).There’s no noise other than bugs and the tractor.”

Her experience of the healing effects of farming has led her to be on the advisory board of a new Veterans Administration project to bring veterans into agriculture.

“Personally being out on the farm has been a really good healing environment for me,” Anderson said. “I’ve been through several different therapies through VA that were good, but I didn’t realize (the farm is) what I needed for final peace and closure. After being out here for a while being on guard sort of disappeared, especially with animal husbandry and my hands in the soil. The more (veterans) we can get that out there (into farming) is good. It’s a life-giving endeavor. Maybe that has something to do with it. Growing things that can nourish your family and community.”

Anderson worked on electronic maintenance in the cryptograph community. She said it was a good job; she traveled, learned a lot and met a lot of interesting people. But she has post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I wasn’t in combat,” she said. “I don’t have those typical types of scars, just typical things that happen in the military. When I first got out here (on the farm) having no borders or walls was kind of freaky. At first like it was indefensible. But after being out here for a while it kind of disappeared.

“At first I didn’t consider myself a farmer. I didn’t feel legitimate in some way. But very soon I ran across a group of lady farmers (the Soil Sisters) who have helped me tremendously – in finding my place, finding ways to diversify so we have various income streams, and to talk about the issues women have to be recognized as farmers.

“My military prepared me for dealing with being a woman in a male-dominated field. But it was my good fortune to run into that group of female farmers.

“It’s good to be able to still live a life of service.”

She said the new VA program is definitely a benefit.

“Education is great and necessary,” she said.” But there’s nothing like putting your hands in the soil and doing the work. To have all those things at the same time is even better. Having all the advisers is good. It seems like the right people are involved.”

VA project means health in rural setting

The new veterans project grew out of the VA office of rural health.

“Rural health said there’s a lack of young farmers coming into the field,” said Denise Chapin, program manager at therapeutic and supportive employment services with the VA. “Veterans are going into farming, but they’re struggling with mental health and physical disabilities because of their service. And they may not have support.”

That support will now come from the VA as well as several partners in the project – including the University of Wisconsin and the Madison Area Technical College to provide training. The combination of free classes, healthcare support, mentors and recruitment is at the heart of the program – a program designed to help those who have given themselves to serve our country.

The “Care” farming concept refers to farms where all or part of a farm is used for therapeutic purposes.

“Part of this started with the Care farm initiative,” said Steve Ventura, UW professor of environmental studies and soil science as well as chair of the agroecology program and director of the Land Tenure Center. “I hope we get back to that – a three-way relationship between farmer, health-care provider and patient. The farmer provides a good place for rehabilitation. The heath-care provider gives better recovery. The patient enjoys the process.”

Chapin said, “People with various mental-health conditions went out and worked on farms. In all the studies they found reduced incidence of self-doubt, increasing self-efficacy and increased social skills. It increased self-worth – had a very good effect on those who participated.

“Of all the veterans we’ve talked to who have gone into farming, their own ability to adjust and cope they give to the land. Whether it’s working with animals or being out with nature, they’ve found it therapeutic. It’s not stressful. It’s working with nature. For the most part you’re dealing with animals and things, and not with people.”

Project needs farmers, veterans

The new project is in its first months. The partners are looking to recruit both interested veterans and farmers who are willing to be mentors to those veterans. Veterans must be registered for VA benefits, but not necessarily be patients. They need to contact Chapin’s group, who will look at a veteran’s experiences to help him or her decide what area of agriculture to look at.

“We (already) do employment services,” she said. “We set up agreements with a business or university to start learning and gaining skills. It may or may not lead to a job. This is the same type of thing but doing it in an agricultural setting.

“Veterans are very good entrepreneurs. They have the ability to take control of their life. Veterans are both independent and team players, so they have a lot of leadership skills. They want to see ‘what I can control’ and ‘what I can see through to the finish.’ You have that with ag. ‘Here’s something I can work really hard at and do my very best at and see these tangible outcomes at the end of that.’”

Education adds to project opportunities

But as farmers know, agriculture is complex and challenging. Someone who has no training is unlikely to do well on a farm. So the project puts a priority on learning. Both the UW-Farm and Industry Short Course in Madison and the Madison Area Technical College’s agricultural courses will be offered free to project participants, paid for by a grant. Those who decide they want even more training can use the GI Bill to earn bachelor’s degrees.

“In any industry employees need to show up to work, do their jobs on time,” said Randy Zogbaum, faculty director and agriculture instructor at the technical college’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. “Who do they look for? The ag students.

“The military teaches the same work ethic, maybe even more so. That’s what a farm needs to have; every day there’s a list of 100 tasks that need to be done. What veterans are finding is that to raise animals, to feel that connection to life, be out in the country, out in the air, is calming and peaceful. And they’re still giving back to their country.”

An important part of the education is understanding the business of a farm, he said. The instructors will help with doing hands-on day-to-day tasks. Many veterans have expressed an interest in managed grazing. The college has a managed-grazing farm; he said he wants to make that match.

“We’re kind of piecing this together as we go,” he said. “The veterans (who have already) come through are breaking down a task and learning how to do that. That was part of their job in the military so they do that pretty effectively. Like a lot of beginning farmers, the business end is tricky but we’re connecting them to resources out there.”

He said some veterans had already bought farms prior to the project, trying to learn the business on their own. They are also invited to participate.

“Military folks are told go out and get it done,” Zogbaum said. “They bring that home with them and just figure it out. Some have friends in farming. Once thing I focus on is to connect people to resources they might not be aware of – the National Conservation Resources Service, UW-Extension, the Farm Service Agency and maybe a grazing network.

“They’re still dealing with issues of transition back to civilian life. Having the knowledge of how to help those folks is a valuable asset. We have a veteran-resource group who works with 700 to 900 veteran students we have at (the college). One counselor is a veteran and the other counselor has good experience. They will also be helping with these (new) students.”

To be continued …

Contact Chapin at 608-256-1901, ext. 16431, or Denise.Chapin@va.gov – or Amy Ferkey at 608-256-1901, ext. 16433, for more information regarding the VA program.

Visit madisoncollege.edu/institute-sustainable-agriculture or email RLZogbaum@madisoncollege.edu for more information on the Madison Area Technical College education available.

Visit advanceyourcareer.wisc.edu and select “Agriculture“ for the field of study or contact 608-262-6416 or sventura@wisc.edu for more information regarding UW-Madison’s agriculture education.

Visit soilsisters.wixsite.com/soilsisters for more information on Soil Sisters.

Julie Belschner writes on various agricultural issues; she is the managing editor for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.