War veterans find peace with a hoe and pitchfork

By Sylvia Kantor, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences 

CultivatingSuccessLogo-250SEQUIM, Wash. – Military veterans on the Olympic Peninsula are healing invisible wounds of war by tending the earth. They are part of a trend taking root across the country called agrotherapy, which helps veterans not only overcome difficulties like post-traumatic stress syndrome but also gain skills to help support themselves and their families.

“There’s not a lot of nurturing during war,” said Jeff Reyes, a veteran who is also a counselor and board member of the Green Alliance for Veterans Education. “But here’s a chance to nurture something alongside your family, a chance to be in a peaceful environment and to help something grow.”

For a growing number of veterans, farming and gardening provide healing through sharing physical work, connecting with nature and often giving back to their communities by donating the fruits of their labor to food banks. The camaraderie is good medicine for the isolation that many veterans experience after returning to civilian life.

Cultivating success

Jeff Reyes and daughter Sari prepare to plant potatoes. (Photo by Derrell Sharp)

At Robin Hill Veteran Gardens near Sequim, Wash., veterans and their families reap more than carrots and cucumbers. The three-acre site is a partnership between the Green Alliance for Veterans Education, Washington State University Extension, Clallam County Parks and Sequim’s Albert Haller Foundation.

“We didn’t want these veterans to fail so we approached WSU Extension to help them learn about farming and gardening,” said Reyes.

Last spring, a handful of veterans and their families took WSU Extension’s Cultivating Success course on sustainable ranching and farming as part of the veteran gardens project. In addition, WSU Extension Master Gardeners were on site during the growing season to advise the aspiring farmers and gardeners.

A farm of their own

Dan and Barb Cutts with their dog and heritage Tamworth pigs. (Photo by Nicole Witham)

Veterans with all levels of farming experience and diverse military service participated in the program. Dan Cutts’ service in the U.S. Navy 1974-78 allowed him and his wife Barb to qualify for a scholarship from the Haller Foundation offered only to veterans.

“We had wanted to take the class for a while, but couldn’t afford it,” said Barb Cutts. “The class gave us many things, but the confidence that we are on the right track – and a network of like-minded people – is invaluable.”

The Cutts are raising Tamworth pigs that roam freely in their forest. Their goal is to establish a thriving microfarm that will continue beyond their lifetimes.

Propagating programs

In Port Townsend, an agricultural training program for veterans is in the planning stages. Liz Rivera Goldstein, a graduate of the WSU Extension Cultivating Success course and long-time peace educator and activist, will host the program at her Peace Patch Farm.

She will provide housing, a part-time salary and will pay for veterans to take Cultivating Success courses.

“We want to help vets develop skills,” she said. “Our hope is that those who work on the farm can find peace and healing.”

A handful of similar programs that connect veterans to agriculture are sprouting across western Washington. According to the national Veteran Farming Coalition, veterans’ farm programs are established in 48 states.

Cultivating Success was created in response to growing demand for education focused on small-acreage, sustainable agriculture and ranching. Courses are offered by WSU Extension throughout the state of Washington. For more information, visit http://www.cultivatingsuccess.org.



Clea Rome, WSU Clallam County Extension, 360-417-2279, clea.rome@wsu.edu

Sylvia Kantor, WSU CAHNRS communications, 206-770-6063, kantors@wsu.edu