Finding peace in the soil: Veterans Farmers Conference promotes farming as therapy for PTSD

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Wallace State’s Kristi Barnett (far right) tells veterans about the school’s community garden program at the recent Veteran Farmers Conference. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

HANCEVILLE, Ala. – Wallace State Community College recently hosted the second annual Veteran Farmers Conference, offering military veterans opportunities to learn about agriculture and agricultural therapy and network with other people who have similar life experiences.  Participants learned about various crops, agricultural equipment and architecture, bee keeping, landscaping and other topics, along with hearing from successful veteran farmers and representatives of Veterans Affairs and various farmer assistance programs.

One major goal of the conference was to bring together resources that can help veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other disorders deal with their conditions through active hands-on therapeutic activities in farming.

Mike Roden, executive director of sponsoring organization Alabama Mountains, Rivers and Valleys Resource Conservation and Development Council (ARMVFCD), told The Tribune, “Every day, about 20 veterans commit suicide, and a lot of these issues revolve around PTSD, as well as any other physical injury they may have gotten as a result of being in the service.  What we want to do is set up a network of veteran farmers that are willing to use their farms for therapy purposes, so that if you do have that kind of problem or know someone that does, they can come there- coordinate it with the local farmer-and use the farm to get outside.

“A lot of studies show that it’s very helpful to use your hands and get away from the crowds, and get away from pressures, and kind of work a lot of your issues out working on the farm.  That’s our goal, is to put together a network of farmers willing and those that need it, and try to get those two groups together so that they can help each other.

“And all these people, these veterans that are agreeing to use their farms, that’s a way they give back, because of the time that they served and what they did, and how to honor those that have served with them.  It’s a really good thing.”

ARMVRCD will provide certain financial assistance to help veteran farmers get therapy programs off the ground.

The idea for therapeutic farming came from a small group of Vietnam veterans who were currently involved in farming and offered ARMVRCD the idea for an organized program.  One of those veterans, J.D. Booker of Booker Farm, talked to The Tribune about what happens when veterans step into his fields.

“I see a relaxation in their minds,” he said. “See, they come in, they’re kind of like stiff, you know: ‘What’s going to happen?’ and ‘Who’s this?’ and all that stuff.  Then, as they get to start to talking and actually participating, you can see the pressure, the tension drop off. You know, the tension goes away.  They’ll be more relaxed, and then they’re smiling, they’re laughing, they’re participating, they’re gathering and sharing, and all that stuff, interacting together.  I can see that now: the stress is gone.

“The biggest thing is that they are accepted.  They’re no longer isolated, and saying, ‘He was this and that,’ and whatever, ‘There’s something wrong with him,’ ‘He’s not right,’ ‘He’s not normal.’  He feels more accepted by the community.

“Now, he can talk with the veterans, other military people.  But when the community comes up and laughs, and shakes their hand, and talks to them, they feel like they’re accepted.”

Get involved

If you are a farmer- especially one who is also a military veteran- who would like to help other vets, or if you are a vet who could benefit from some “down to earth” therapy, contact AMRVFCD Executive Director Mike Roden at 256-773-8495 or email mike.roden@armvrcd.com.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com