“It’s nice to be able to plant something in the ground that will explode into life rather than into destruction,” a veteran told Chris Brown.
Brown, a native of Woodinville, is the founder of Growing Veterans, an organization that helps military veterans readjust to civilian life and promotes sustainable agriculture. Growing Veterans is based in Whatcom County, but began partnering with Woodinville’s 21 Acres this spring.
After graduating from Woodinville High School in 2004, Brown served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. In Iraq, he was wounded by a suicide bombing followed by an attack on the patrol base. He left the service with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other physical injuries, for which he received a Purple Heart.
He began attending Western Washington University under the G.I. Bill, where he studied human services and social work.
He remembers thinking, “‘It would be ideal if I could work with other veterans,’ because I was going through some healing and transition process at that time. I realized the best use of my life would be to help other people do that professionally,” Brown said.
While he was in school, he volunteered with the Veterans Conservation Corps, helping local veterans transition to school. He met lots of veterans who were interested in sustainable agriculture.
“They were identifying an issue with agriculture, and I was identifying an issue with veterans,” Brown said.
He founded Growing Veterans in 2012 upon graduating from WWU. Today, seven veterans are employed at Growing Veterans’ main farm and an additional seven veterans are employed through partner farms. Growing Veterans has 20 interns, 100 volunteers on its main farm and about 20 volunteers at 21 Acres, some of them veterans and some civilians.
“Some of them are really interested in becoming farmers. Others just want to get outside or get involved in their community,” Brown said. Another draw is “being a part of something bigger than themselves ... it’s something we all kind of long for, but veterans especially, because you’ve been with this group for so long. So it can be really huge for them, and therapeutic.”
And veterans often have skills that are uniquely suited to working in agriculture — for example, good pattern recognition and the habit of looking for anything out of the ordinary.
“There’s all kinds of ways that our skills from the military work well on the farm,” Brown said. “Working well on a team, being able to transition from a leader to a follower as needed, being decisive.”
Growing Veterans’ volunteers and employees work on weeding, harvesting and transplanting, as well as specialty projects such as irrigation. The food produced at Growing Veterans goes to the Growing Washington CSA (community supported agriculture).
Work at 21 Acres, Growing Veterans’ Woodinville outpost, began in March, when volunteers planted 300 native plants in a wetland restoration project. Anyone can volunteer at the Second Saturdays events, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at 21 Acres.
Although the outpost is in the early stages, “Our intention is to make it more than just once a month,” said Lisa Davidson, outpost coordinator for 21 Acres. “We’d like to get some veterans placed in internships … we’re hoping that we can sort of be a link with veterans who are studying at local colleges. Someone who might have been a driver in their military life might help with delivery.”
Davidson, a Marine Corps veteran who’s now pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Washington, said Growing Veterans helps bring veterans together, while non-military volunteers may come away with a different perception of veterans.
“It gives veterans from a lot of different backgrounds an opportunity to get together ... and know people who have been through similar experiences,” she said.
Want to get involved? Go to www.growingveterans.org/login to register and RSVP to volunteer, or to www.bit.ly/maketheshiftgv to donate.