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The healing power of soil

Posted by Alison Detjens | December 15, 2014

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

Alison Detjens - student guest blogger
Alison Detjens – student guest blogger

Tilth Producers of Washington has been holding yearly gatherings for 40 years. The annual conference brings together farmers, interns, intermediaries, educators and food activists for a three day long celebration of sharing knowledge and ideas.

Some of the workshops are technical, providing best practices or innovative ideas; others focus on community and health. One of the workshops I attended this year spoke of a farm that bridges the social and physical aspects of food and farming in a profound, yet simple way: a farm dedicated to working with veterans of war to help heal and reintegrate men and women into civilian society.

I am personally well aware of the healing power of working the soil. My time spent farming truly was comprised of blood (nothing too drastic), sweat and tears. I found rows of corn a perfect place to break down and let emotions out. Having meaningful daily tasks, which resulted in nourishment for others was the best therapy I have ever experienced.

War. A topic some of us have no idea about while others lives have been changed dramatically by it. There are thousands of women and men in the United States who have come back from combat (both recently or decades ago) only to face numerous and serious issues at home. Depression, divorce, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), homelessness unemployment, and even suicide are among the more severe issues our vets are facing.

The office of Veterans Affairs (VA), the government agency designated to help veterans, is in the news for for being overwhelmed and lacking adequate resources to address the issues our veterans need help with. One organization, Growing Veterans, is working to provide some tangible solutions for veterans.

Growing Veterans is an organic farm outside Bellingham, WA which provides opportunities and support to veterans in the area. This working farm focuses on sustainable practices, and community access to healthy, nutritious foods. One of the main objectives is to help veterans reintegrate into society by providing employment, professional volunteer opportunities, and a place to make connections with other veterans.

Those of us who have grown food, either for a living or for own families know the power of working the soil. The joy, frustration and ultimate satisfaction that comes from coaxing food from the Earth. There is nothing like it.

Farming can be much more than simply adding the correct amount of fertilizer, controlling pests or diseases, and harvesting. Working within the context of academia and agriculture it is easy to get caught up in determining how to obtain maximum yield or deal with the next pest. But there is another, more visceral side of farming which is equally important.

Working outside, getting dirty, overcoming challenges (such as the tractor won’t start, again) working as part of a team, eating incredible food; these are all benefits from working the land. They have nothing to do with yield, they are about fostering growth within oneself and from plants along with a feeling of community.

At one point during the workshop discussion, the Growing Veterans farm manager told us a story. She was planting plugs, hundreds of them, with a quiet, shy volunteer veteran. At one point he said, “it feels really good to be putting something in dirt that is going to grow and isn’t going to explode and kill someone”. Many of us have never had direct experiences with the kind of violence and destruction war brings; but we, as a community, need to help those have.

In a relatively short period of time (conversations about Growing Veterans started in early 2012) this group has made huge strides. The group sells all their produce, much of it going to the VA hospital in Seattle. The amount of media coverage they have received is incredible. There are several new outposts due to break ground in the next growing season, due to expanding interest. Additionally, a short film, “From Battlefields to Farmfields”, was made by similar group about this growing movement with a mission to support veterans.

I truly believe that in order for our global food system to move forward in a successful manner we need to rehumanize farming practices. More people need to get involved with agriculture within their local communities. Agriculture can heal, this much is clear. The farmers working on the Growing Veterans farms are truly leaders in the sustainable food movement. How can we support organizations such as this one and others with similar missions to make our communities stronger?