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Growing Veterans

Nonprofit farms use "dirt therapy" to help vets

Fresh produce grown by veterans. Photo credit: Growing Veterans

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Growing Veterans is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit veteran-run organization founded by Marine Corps veteran Chris Brown and Chris Wolf, a licensed mental health professional, in 2012. The organization's two farms -- one in Skagit County and one in Whatcom County -- are the cornerstone of the program. The group combines the peer support of fellowship with the therapeutic benefits of farming to help veterans.

"Our mission is to empower military veterans to grow food, communities and each other," said Joel Swenson, a veteran and the farm manager of Starbird Farm in Skagit County. "We are a group of veterans of all ages and from different eras who learn how to live sustainably and feed our local communities. We are also creating a network of peer support with other veteran organizations. The farm uses "dirt therapy" to help ease the sometimes difficult transition veterans face after getting out. There has been VA research showing the increase in quality of life for veterans who are involved in agriculture. For some, taking care of the land is therapeutic."

Scotty Irwin, also a veteran, serves as the market manager for the organization.  

"We invite other veterans and civilian volunteers to come out and farm with us. Working alongside other veterans, learning how to grow food, working outside and being part of a mission are some of the key elements to the success of our program," he said. "Each staff member participates in our three-day peer support and a suicide prevention training program. We are just other veterans that want to help our brothers and sisters with their own journeys transitioning from military to civilian life."

The program reaches beyond veterans to help members of the community as well.

"Our produce is all veteran grown. We carry the Homegrown by Heroes label through the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which helps veterans start their own farms. We have multiple outlets for our produce to include local farmers markets near VA facilities and the Puget Sound Food Hub," Swenson said. "We are currently growing for our local food bank as well to help feed our community and to find veterans who may benefit from farming. Our markets include Marysville and Mount Vernon, where we engage the community as well as veterans (one of our markets is near the Mount Vernon CBOC)."

The Puget Sound Food Hub is a farmer-owned cooperative that operates in the Puget Sound region to market and distribute food from local farms like those run by Growing Veterans to restaurants, schools, hospitals and other entities.

"Our produce is certified organic and Salmon Safe," Irwin said. "We also carry the Homegrown by Heroes label, which lets customers and buyers know they are purchasing a veteran-produced product. Our produce is exceptional and is purchased by many restaurants in the Seattle, Skagit and Whatcom areas. We also grow food for the local food bank in Sedro Wooley. This year, we grew 6,000 pounds."

The groups want veterans and other support agencies to know they are available to help.

"We are a resource for transitioning veterans with staff that have experience in the GI Bill, VA vocational rehabilitation, VA home loans and guidance for any other benefits. We believe in the therapeutic effects of farming for veterans with PTSD and TBI, and our goal is to help fight the isolation that veterans and active-duty may experience. We are always looking for help, and we are always looking for those to help. Our farms are located north of JBLM, but we are working to expand farms down the I-5 corridor," said Swenson.

For more information, visit growingveterans.org.

Growing Veterans, 21025 Starbird Rd., Mount Vernon, 360.445.2399, growingveterans.org

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