My very first memories involve plants–my mother’s spider plant to be exact. I think it stuck out because, although I was only three years old and the plant hung far above me, all the little spiderettes still somehow made their way down to greet me-and yes, they are called spiderettes. While some kids had imaginary friends, I had plants and I loved them. Growing up, I ran feral through the forests near our home in Alaska. I imagined I was something of a cross between a mountain man and The Jungle Book’s Mowgli. I remember being absolutely in love with the nature around me. This turned out to be a good thing because my father was a survival instructor for the US Air Force, so spending time outdoors was commonplace for me. I would spend my summer afternoons digging carrots and picking strawberries from neighbors’ gardens…usually without permission. And I was 100percent convinced that bonsai trees were how one becomes a “Karate Master” à la Mr. Miyagi, so I dug tree after tree trying to achieve this status (RIP Mr. Miyagi and those trees).
In 1998 I joined the Air Force, mostly because that was the branch my father and grandfather served in. I knew I did not want a job sitting around in finance; I wanted some action, some excitement. So, like most naive 18-year-olds, I let my recruiter choose my career for me. I ended up spending five years in Security Forces, the Air Force’s version of the Military Police with an infantry twist. In that time, I guarded the Enola Gay, I slept in dirt holes for weeks in a desert, I guarded a president and unfortunately, I helped bury fellow servicemen.
While in the Air Force, I met some of the greatest young men and women of my life, people I will remember forever, people who shaped me. Like many veterans, I do not miss the military, but I miss the comradery and the sense of invincibility that comes with youth.
When I left the military, I did not keep in contact with many friends; I did not want to talk about the military. I jumped from job to job. I tried school. I worked in social work for seven years, but by the end of it, I was mentally crumbling, bringing home my anxiety and frustrations. Nothing quite fit. I just wanted to be outside, working with my hands.
My wife of 20 years, also a veteran, encouraged me to step away and consider what I needed. I think one of the most difficult stages in many veterans’ stories is acknowledging you need some help and that it is absolutely OK to heal. For me, the farm and a veteran community were my catalysts; they created a space that allowed me to accept that support.
I wanted to share my passion for nature and the peace and serenity I got from my gardens. I deeply understood how nature improved my mental health and the therapeutic value agriculture could offer to others. There are 420,000 veterans living in Colorado, but there was no program connecting veterans to agriculture. I quickly knew we had something special. In many ways, Veterans to Farmers was something I worked to create because I needed it just as much as any graduate we have. I am incredibly proud of what we have created with Veterans to Farmers.
Since 2013, Veterans to Farmers has been leading the way for veterans seeking meaningful careers in agriculture. Additionally, Veterans to Farmers was founded by veterans who intimately understand the many reintegration obstacles our veteran family encounters after service. With the constant pressure to adapt our food systems to an ever-changing landscape, we saw an opportunity for veterans to answer that challenge while also reaping the therapeutic benefits of nature.
Veterans to Farmers provides comprehensive and immersive hands-on training opportunities that can be applied to many elements of agriculture. We offer every veteran the opportunity to experience the soil and nature with their own hands. Our programs vary in length, from an afternoon introductory workshop on urban agriculture to a 21-week-long training program that prepares veterans to start their own organic vegetable production operation. Over the past eight years, Veterans to Farmers has graduated over 160 veterans from our courses. Many of those graduates have returned to school for agricultural degrees, some have started farms throughout the country, some work on local farms and some are just happy in their backyard garden. Our classes are free to any veteran. We also pay a stipend to veterans during the course, so they can offset some of the cost associated with attending and focus on the experience.
Farming could never be described as easy, but most veterans we encounter are inspired by the challenge and find it both rewarding and familiar. Although experience tells us working in the soil is therapeutic, we also know this is scientifically relevant. Mycobacterium is a bacterium found in soil believed to stimulate serotonin production, increase mood and reduce stress. Alongside this, it is also the opportunity to be present in nature, observing and taking part in the birth and death of a season.
The veteran population is unique, tied together by values, customs, traditions, ethos, teamwork and selfless duty. While many Americans would benefit from more immersion outdoors, time spent in nature is particularly beneficial for veterans. Veterans to Farmers grew from the notion that nature and the farm could provide our community alternatives to mental health care and growth. With the extraordinarily high veteran suicide rate, we knew we needed more options to address our community’s unique needs. Our classes help break habits of isolation by bringing veterans together with fellow veterans who understand their culture and many of their experiences. We make a concerted effort to parallel the needs of tending to the soil and plant health much like one would with their mental health. And we underscore that being a good steward of the land comes with taking care of both our resources and ourselves, simultaneously.
As a veteran, I often think of planting a seed as a declaration of hope, and we can always use some extra hope.
Happy Veterans Day to my military family out there.
Richard Murphy: Executive Director of Veterans to Farmers, and Plant Guy.
Richard Murphy is a third-generation Air Force Veteran who comes from a family proud of their military heritage and service to the nation. Murphy served as a member of the US Security Forces from 1998 to 2003. After returning to the civilian sector, he looked for a way to continue serving his community and worked in social work from 2007 to 2014. He was introduced to Veterans to Farmers in 2013 while looking for others who shared the same passion for local food production, responsible agriculture and community. Murphy and Veterans to Farmers became inseparable and he has gone on to help design the courses, teach the classes, mentor veterans and educate the public on the important topics of veteran community building and local food security.