Situated in the northwestern corner of Washington state, a three acre farm is a refuge for the ex-service members who run Growing Veterans, a Lynden-based nonprofit. The modest plot of land primarily produces hops, honey, and garlic—but Growing Veterans cultivates much more than just crops. The organization helps veterans plant roots in their community, providing a source of connection to their peers and civilians, along with some “dirt therapy.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 400,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been diagnosed with PTSD. In an effort to cope with the realities of their return home, nature therapy has become an increasingly prevalent and successful tool in improving symptoms of PTSD. Growing Veterans has created a unique opportunity for healing through its mission of cultivating belonging and purpose through farming and peer support.

The farm manager, Joel Swenson, gave me a warm welcome as soon as I stepped onto the wet ground, ushering to follow him for the grand tour. Heads of broccoli and kale still poked out of the soil but, for the most part, the dormant season had set in as crops prepared for hibernation. The same was not true however for Growing Veterans’ crew of volunteers, who were hard at work moving bales of hay and preparing last year’s garlic seed for planting.

Growing Veterans has created a strong network in the community, relying on donations from local seed producers, like Uprising Seeds, for next season’s crop. And the community spirit goes both ways, each year Growing Veterans donates between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of produce (the majority of their bounty) to the Bellingham Food Bank. Staying true to their roots, the team at Growing Veterans helps connect veterans with a multitude of resources, including their own mental health peer support training.

As we walked through the hoop house, joined by executive director and Navy veteran Michael Frazier, organic lettuce sprouts could be seen springing through the soft earth. “If you’re not thinking long-term about your practices, you’re not thinking ahead,” says Michael regarding the organization’s sustainable farming practices. By working with the land, instead of against it, the volunteers behind Growing Veterans contribute to a thriving non-GMO food supply in their community and beyond. The farm has been USDA certified organic since 2015 in all but their honey—a problem many boutique farms encounter because of the contamination pressures bees face while pollinating the plants of non-organic neighbors.

Last on our tour was the hop field where, earlier in the season, Growing Veterans had produced five varieties of organic hops for a beer in partnership with Bellingham’s Aslan Brewing Company: the Charlie Foxtrot IPA. Joel pointed to the hops’ remnants strung up on parachute cord, drawing irony from the use of the tool he had relied on during his time in the Army for farming. “We’re creating life, not destroying it,” he remarked.

Not only is Growing Veterans helping to build new lives for discharged service members, but also they’re also creating new life in the soil through sustainable farming practices. As I reflect on Michael and Joel’s poignant words and celebrate their years of service, I urge you to support and connect with the organizations in your own community that foster growth, particularly for our veterans.

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