Whatcom program supports veterans while growing healthy vegetables for the community

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 30, 2014 

On fertile land between Lynden and Bellingham, a nonprofit program is helping military veterans ease back into civilian life while growing healthy vegetables for the community at large.

The second growing season is underway for Growing Veterans, with a focus on building community support and developing long-range plans.

Chris Brown, the program's director, said raising organic produce on the three acres and in two large greenhouses plays to the veterans' strengths - including teamwork and a sense of camaraderie - and gives them a chance to overcome isolation and to support each other while they help the environment.

"They're favorite part of Growing Veterans is that they can feel they're part of something larger than themselves, again," he said.

About 15 veterans are regulars at the farm, which formerly grew produce for Bellingham Food Bank. Many other people donate their labor, and support from foundations, businesses, veterans' organizations and other community groups is crucial as Growing Veterans moves toward its goal of becoming self-supporting with more paying positions for veterans.

Veterans supporting the project have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea.

Growing Washington, a farm-support group based in Bellingham, has put Growing Veterans under its nonprofit umbrella, making it possible to seek grants and donations, Brown said. Also, Growing Washington pays some of the veterans. In return, much of the food grown by the veterans goes to customers who sign up for baskets of fresh produce through Growing Washington.

INJURED IN IRAQ

Brown, 27, grew up in east King County but didn't have any farming experience before he became a Marine in 2004. A member of the infantry, he served two deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. While in Iraq he was injured during a suicide-bombing attack on his base. He sustained a brain injury and copes with chronic knee and back pain, ringing in his ears, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I've learned to manage the symptoms enough to be functional," he said.

After the service, he took classes at Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University, earning a degree in human services with a focus on veterans' issues. He's now working on a master's in social work through the University of Washington while he works to develop Growing Veterans.

Two years ago, while at Western, Brown met student veterans at Huxley College of the Environment who were interested in alternatives to corporate farming that overly relies on chemicals and emphasizes heavily processed food products.

Brown began searching for a way to combine those veterans' interest in sustainable farming with his interest in social service. So he worked part time for Growing Washington to learn about farming and won a fellowship from a national veterans' group to support his start-up work on Growing Veterans.

By the spring of 2013, the program was ready to begin, with help from nearly 100 volunteers and several veterans paid by Americorps and other sources.

One of the people Brown met along the way was Jake Oostra, a 31-year-old Bellingham native who served four years in the Navy aboard the missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill.

Oostra shares Brown's interest in sustainable agriculture, so he's using his graduate classes at WWU in adult and higher education to help Growing Veterans. Oostra is writing grants and helping to develop peer counseling and mentoring support for the veterans.

Working together outdoors at the farm can help veterans decompress after their years in combat and offers a way to reconnect with public life, Oostra said.

"The farm is a really good place to begin their transition back to the civilian community," he said. "There's a lot of value in small-scale farming. It might not be economic value, but it's still value."

PLANS FOR GROWTH

Brown said that for many veterans out of the service, seeking help such as counseling carries an unwarranted stigma of weakness. That's why having veterans support and counsel other veterans is an important part of the long-range plan for Growing Veterans, he said. Much of that support is informal at the moment, so several veterans in the program plan to travel to Israel to learn from well-established peer-support programs there.

"The stigma is huge," Brown said. "Peer support is what can eliminate it."

To underwrite help for veterans, Brown wants to expand production at the farm and generate more revenue by making more "value-added" farm products. With more income, and with grants and fellowships, more veterans could be paid for their farm work, he said.

Brown also hopes to expand the program to other sites. Two initial farm "outposts" have been set up, one in Woodinville and one west of Mount Vernon, with more work needed at both.

Oostra said he has talked to Vietnam veterans at Bellingham Veterans Center, where he works part time, and they tell him they wish something like Growing Veterans existed when they returned from the war decades ago.

"There's so many problems that we hear about all the time," Oostra said. "We really feel this is developing into a good solution."

HOW TO HELP

To learn more about Growing Veterans, including how to volunteer and donate, go to growingveterans.org.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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