There is a local farm that has made it its mission to prove how therapeutic horticulture can be. The Veterans Farm is a Jacksonville-based organization that rehabilitates post-9/11 war veterans by teaching them how to cultivate their own crops.
The founder and CEO of Veterans Farm, Adam Burke, is a war veteran himself. He served in Iraq in 2004 and was injured in a mortar attack. When he returned to America, he started farming in central Florida alongside other vets as a relaxation and therapy technique.
This caught the eye of Work Vessels for Veterans, an organization whose mission is to help rehabilitate veterans back into society by helping them start a business or finish school. Work Vessels for Veterans recognized that farming could be both a self-therapy technique and a business opportunity for veterans.
Veteran’s Farm has a fellowship program in order to teach veterans horticulture therapy and agriculture techniques. The fellowship allows veterans to live on the farm rent-free in exchange for daily farm labor. After six months, if the veterans are ready, they graduate from the program and the Veteran’s Farm helps set them up with their own farm and a business model to start their new life.
Burke opened his first farm in Jacksonville in April of 2010 and by August veterans were already beginning their six-month fellowships on the farm. Now, the Veteran’s Farm has three farms in Jacksonville: 8 acres, 6 acres and 5 acres.
Typically, the fellowship program has five or six veterans in a fellowship at once.
“We’d obviously like to have more, but funding is limited. These guys don’t need a small fix; we are performing surgery,” said Burke. “It’s tough love on the farm because too many veterans come home from war and are complacent doing nothing. We challenge them to do something: to farm, to run a business, to strategize a marketing plan and make profits from their labor.”
The Veteran’s Farm performs this surgery by promoting hard work and healthy lifestyles. Forward thinking allows veterans to move on from the past and focus instead on the crops they are trying to cultivate. With something else to focus on, they spend less energy reliving the horrors of war. Sunny days replace sleepless nights on the farm. Burke has seen multiple veterans get off of their cholesterol, high blood pressure, pain and anxiety medicine through horticulture therapy.
In addition to their extraordinary work with veterans, the Veteran’s Farm program gives back to the community as well. Every year toward the end of April the farm opens up its blueberry fields for a “U-pick” farm experience, during which anyone can come on the farm to pick their own blueberries. All proceeds go directly back to the Veteran’s Farm fellowship program. The farm also opens its doors to local schools for tours so children can learn about horticulture.
One main goal of the Veteran’s Farm is to shatter the stigma society has about veterans.
“People get nervous hiring a veteran who has served in a war. They don’t know what you’ve seen in battle, so they can be apprehensive about hiring you. Post traumatic stress disorder is a big concern,” Burke explained. “We have the veterans on our farm reach out to other local organizations to help break this stereotype. Our veterans donate thousands of pounds of food to local charities and shelters so that they can make these community relationships. We want show the world what we’ve learned on the farm: that veterans can be rehabilitated into society and that they can overcome the physical and mental stress that war causes.”
In addition to their community efforts, the farm practices sustainable farming methods, which ensures their carbon footprint remains small, through composting, recycled water, and organic farming.
The farm currently has a 70 percent success rate in rehabilitating veterans. Just this past month, two veterans successfully completed their fellowship. One of them graduated from college and has secured a job in law enforcement, while the other has been set up with his own farm with a tractor, goats and farming tools.
The Veteran’s Farm has received multiple awards and recognitions and plenty of media coverage, but the most rewarding thing the program has seen is the mentorship from graduated Veteran’s Farm vets.
“Before veterans come into the program, they are skeptics at best,” said Burke. “But after spending time on the farm and learning about horticulture therapy, most of them choose to stick around and pay it forward, because they want other veterans to heal. To me, that speaks for itself.”