Many veterans lack the adequate tools and resources needed to meet the challenge of transitioning from military life back into the civilian sector. Although returning Veterans do have available resources through the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), they often lack the ability to locate ongoing “local” support — often, a civilian job can’t replicate the feeling of purpose and community many who have served in the armed forces are used to.
Cultivating Life Through Community
The Veterans Healing Farm’s mission is to create thriving micro-communities of veterans and civilians who build deep friendships, implement innovative gardening techniques, and foster physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The goal is to personally empower vets through the realization that their own efforts and contributions are important to our community.
There is a strong sense of community in the military, which is accomplished when young men and women are put together and forced to trust and rely on complete strangers to accomplish a goal. These relationships are fast forming under intense pressure. This is a drastic difference compared to civilian life where it is easy to feel isolated and relationships evolve at a different pace. Veterans Healing Farm was born out of a deep desire to create a place where veterans can plug into a new community, and discover a new “mission” outside of the military.
U.S. Airman and horticulturist John Mahshie and his wife, Nicole, run Veterans Healing Farm in Hendersonville, NC. The expansive garden fosters community between military families and civilians. John sees gardening as a way to provide physical, emotional and spiritual health. “In our culture,” he said, “it’s so easy to be isolated.”
Veterans, he thinks, especially those combat veterans who have faced death and dying, benefit from a chance “to cultivate and nurture life.” He cites the high suicide rate (22 per day according to Stars and Stripes) among veterans who often feel disconnected and bereft of the sense of community they felt among fellow soldiers while enlisted.
“You always hear the 22-a-day stat for suicides, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Mahshie said. “That doesn’t address divorce rates, substance abuse rates, homelessness, unemployment — there are many different issues.”
Many groups that aid veterans concentrate on helping them find jobs or financial security, but, as John sees it, there are many more facets that need to be addressed so veterans can cope well with all aspects of their lives, besides just finances.
“Many veteran farm programs right now place the emphasis on job training in the field of agriculture. That is not our purpose. If a vet becomes inspired to go on and pursue a career in farming, that’s great. However, our main purpose is to create a healing and therapeutic atmosphere.
We are still in the process of connecting with the veteran community and vets who would benefit from participating at the farm. “We were able to provide a scholarship to a veteran who was in the process of job-hunting and expecting his fifth child. They had to move, because he was able to find a job in Virginia. But we were able to walk alongside them in a very difficult season of their lives, as well as provide them produce. They are doing well now,” says Nicole.
The Core of a Healing Community
Mahshie’s vision is a holistic healing space, more than the sum of its 200 asparagus crowns and 60 hops plants growing toward the sun, more than a vegetable garden dotted with kale and tomato plants.
“Our tagline says we’re cultivating life through community, and we’re doing that through teaching alternative energy and (growing) hops,” he said. “It’s different things but, in essence, it’s back down to the core of the idea of community.”
In the paw paw and apple trees, the blueberries and blackberries, Mahshie sees a place for safe vulnerability. He sees veterans laboring to avoid becoming statistics.
Among the two produce gardens, one lined with red, white and blue plastic-covered 300-foot rows, forming an American flag, he sees more than patriotism. The red plastic will increase tomato production up to 20 percent. The blue reflects UV light to benefit the cucumber and melon family. The silver-white deters pests. All produce from that “Donation Garden,” accessed by stepping stones tracing a path through a cool, clear creek is donated to organizations that serve veterans.
In that way, the farm even reaches veterans who have no desire, or mental or physical means to participate.
The techniques Mahshie uses to grow his plants are meant to optimize the natural benefits of sunlight, soil and rain. He rejects the idea that innovations in farming are necessarily more convenient and productive.
“The idea of getting the soil back to the way that nature intended it to be, in my opinion, is one of the most advanced forms possible,” he said. “When you take something that’s sustainable and scrap it for something that’s not, eventually what was once sustainable will start to come back. In the military, there’s rules for rules. You leave your family, your friends and even your identity, you join the military and they take away your clothes, cut your hair and give you an identity, and everyone in that room has the same experience. You go from zero to best friends in three seconds,” says Mahshie.
Mahshie paints a view of a world colored by a modern-day epidemic: isolation in an age of sitting alone by the light of technology rather than gathering by the flickering fire of hearth. It’s where many veterans suffer a particularly crippling degree of culture shock.
“These are anti-social networks,” Mahshie said. “You don’t have community. You don’t have authenticity. You don’t have vulnerability, which is part of community.”
Healing Boot Camps at Veterans Healing Farm
Mahshie’s approach to gardening is similar to his approach to human healing. He uses the word “empowerment” often, and hopes the human networks he’s nurturing will promote strength, one of the reasons he built the garden-side shipping containers, it’s a planned community center slated to open in the spring of 2016 will allow the Veterans Healing Farm to further its mission by offering Holistic Training Boot Camps.
“I think the coolest thing about it is that there’s nothing like it in the country. The goal is to create an intentional, intensive educational approach that will provide veterans with the tools they need.”
The repurposed shipping containers will provide space for intensive boot-camp retreats. One has eight bunks with new mattresses, lights, ladders and windows; a tiny but full kitchen; a full bathroom. The temporary housing will allow veterans to immerse themselves in a sustainability based curriculum, including composting and permaculture classes.
The other shipping container will form a mess hall where veterans can learn about fermentation, canning and food preparation.
Mahshie hopes the training can help give veterans a sense of camaraderie and purpose, and sees the Veteran’s Healing Farm as a new sort of social network, a place for seeding purpose.
“The sense that my story isn’t over. It’s a place for giving veterans a hand up, not a handout. I can’t keep anyone from committing suicide. I can’t do anything in terms of fixing anybody’s life. But I can provide an environment that they can be exposed to different things that will allow them to fix their lives,” says John.
Donated solar panels give the center a boost; once installed, the 10 kilowatts of power the panels are capable of producing will negate any electrical costs, aiding in the Healing Farm’s mission to offer the boot camps to veterans at no charge.
A Place of Transition for a New Purpose
“The farm provides an environment where they can transition from a place of needing respite to a place of being empowered,” said Director of Operations Brandon Sirois, a former U.S. Army medic who served in Iraq.
Sirois recently joined the four-person staff at the Healing Farm, as did Abby Clark, a former member of the Coast Guard and graduate of Berea College who is excited about her role as garden manager.
The Healing Farm team uses the analogy of Lt. Dan Taylor’s rise to a new life in the film “Forrest Gump” to illustrate the bottom-up healing process their organization adheres to. In the movie, a friendship is first re-established with Gump, followed by hard physical activity on a shrimp boat, which provides a space for Taylor to heal, and finally, personal empowerment, symbolized by Taylor getting prosthetic legs.
The boot camps will focus on a range of farming-related skills in a truly holistic training, for both “body and soul,” he said.
Education in skilled vocations like beekeeping, growing mushrooms, horticulture and animal husbandry will be combined with yoga classes and workshops such as healing with medicinal herbs.
Veterans may find a new mission in a farming career, Mahshie said, or skills that vets can in turn teach to others.
The Healing Farm plans to have interested vets take the boot camp model and expand it throughout the country in an open-source manner in any way that might work best in a given situation.
“Our purpose is to have a diverse community – veterans and non-veterans, conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious,” said Mahshie. “It’s a multifaceted, holistic approach.”
The organization’s current facets of operation include a micro-community with a focus on food: gardening and eating nutritionally dense produce and animal products, like the farm-fresh eggs from the farm’s newly acquired chickens. The community — or “tribe”— meets formally twice a month to share food in a potluck.
The number of veterans the healing farm serves has doubled from 15 in 2014 to 30, and the amount of people served is about 100 when counting the families of the vets, said Nicole Mahshie, John’s wife and the healing farm’s administrator.
Former Marine and Purple Heart veteran Matthew Walton is grateful for the community at the Healing Farm…
“It certainly lives up to its name — to provide opportunities to veterans and, in my case, to take a break and provide healing. There are certain times veterans need a helping hand and a safe environment for growth,” says Walton.
For vets who aren’t ready for the social contact, a “donation garden” provides a therapeutic space to work in peace. The garden produced 3,500 pounds of produce in 2015, which was donated to Interfaith Assistance Ministries.
“The food is a means to an end. The goal in planting is to plant more than enough; every year it gets better and better,” says Mahshie.
Veterans can take as much food for themselves and their families as they need for a discounted rate; working on the farm is not required.
Equine therapy is another way those with post-traumatic stress disorder can heal. Partner organization Horse Sense of the Carolinas started bringing horses to the farm last summer and will continue to visit on a regular basis next season.
Adventure trips are offered to veterans and their families, such as kayaking or zip-lining.
Listen to: 94.5 WGTK-FM Radio Interview recording from January 10, 2015 – as John Mahshie, the founder and executive director of the Veterans Healing Farm, talks about their mission and explains the hurdles veterans face as they transition back into civilian life.
You Can Help the Veteran’s Healing Farm
There are ways you can foster this budding community, see what they’re working on now…
To make an online donation to the Veterans Healing Farm, visit: razoo.com/story/Vhf
Visit the Veterans Healing Farm website.
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