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Growing A Community Of Farmer Veterans

There’s a growing movement to help veterans transition from the battlefield to a more bucolic setting. Whether it’s a community agriculture initiative or a functioning farm – researchers are finding that raising food can offer veterans both a therapeutic and an economic value.

A garden where veterans can learn to work the land and grow food is under construction at The Sustainable Living Project, on Sligh Avenue, just across from Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo.

This month, volunteers cut fence posts, dug post holes and established a perimeter around the 10 raised garden beds. They will be painted red, white and blue to set them apart from the other gardens. Food from this section will be given to homeless veterans or those at risk of becoming homeless.

A graying, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Bernie Lodico was on his knees as he leveled one of the fence posts.

“I always had a garden. Its relaxing. It’s self-sufficient. You don’t depend on anybody,” Lodico said. He served two tours in Vietnam and prefers gardening to being in large crowds.

Lodico is one of several veterans helping to build the garden and sharing ideas on how to make it accessible to veterans with disabilities.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Inside the greenhouse, the pool with 350 blue tilapia is covered with a plastic tarp to protect the fish from the cold weather. Beyond is a series of containers, linked by plumbing, that filter the water and then feed growing plants.

Just beyond the Veterans’ Garden is the greenhouse which is home to more than plants. There’s a blue, above ground swimming pool set up at the far end. Plumbing links it to a series of boxes that filter the water and then feeds several plant beds.

“There’s 350 blue tilapia and we’re growing food,” said Will Carey, the project’s operating manager. “This is one of the things we want to introduce to the veterans as well. There is a certain amount of science involved in it, but it’s also something you can incorporate in your everyday life.”

Carey obtained a $12,500 grant from USAA to create this veterans garden. And after the ribbon cutting February 16th, he said veterans will be able to experience more than seeding, weeding and harvesting vegetables.

He said veterans can work on the solar panels, their hydroponic system, composting, painting signs or help care for the bees, chickens and fish.

“We’re on less than an acre of land, but there’s enough going on here to kind of peak your interest in one direction or another,” Carey said.

Veterans find chickens and bees calming said Karen Besterman-Dehan, a researcher and medical anthropologist at the Center of Innovation on Disability & Rehabilitation Research with the James A. Haley VA.

She said researchers are only beginning to track the value of agriculture – whether farming or gardening – as veterans move back into civilian life. Yet she added that there’s some early evidence showing physical and mental health benefits.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Strawberries in a vertical garden is another method of growing demonstrated at the sustainable living project.

“Veterans join the military because they want to make a difference in the world,” Besterman-Dahan said. “And coming back and being able to serve their community, this is a definite way and a very life affirming way and that’s something that we keep hearing over and over.”

She has interviewed veterans across the country, many members of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, to measure the impact that farming and smaller community projects like Tampa’s are having on their lives.

“A big finding that we had was that veterans found that, since they started in their community agriculture initiatives, they were more comfortable talking with civilians and more comfortable talking to strangers and people that didn’t have a military background,” Besterman-Dahan said. “Those were really important things.”

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Red and green lettuce, carrots, onions, tomatoes and strawberries are in season. Note the solar panels above that provide electricity for the water pumps.

And she said that the veterans’ families noticed it as well.

There are other veteran agricultural projects in Florida. The Green Path Veterans’ Farm took root in Sarasota two years ago thanks to the Florida Veterans for Common Sense Fund.

And near Jacksonville, there’s the Veterans Farm – growing blueberries, producing workshops and training veterans interested in agriculture.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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