Growing Care: Farming, Gardening Helps Vets Grow Stronger Roots Back Home

Did you know the the Natural Resources Conservation Service offers programs and grants to veterans interested in learning more about agriculture? As TWILA's Kristen Oaks-White explains, for some veterans coming back from serving overseas, simply growing plants can help give them purpose and save their life.

By Avery Davidson, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation

When Charles Claybaker came home from Afghanistan, farming wasn’t really on his mind.

Retired from the Army in 2013, Claybaker suffered severe injuries during an Osprey crash that changed his life.  When he got home, the one thing he did see was many veterans with injuries like his. 

“I actually had punched through the side of the aircraft with both of my feet,” Claybaker said.   “With that, I broke every joint on the right side of my leg.  I broke my right ankle, my right knee and my right hip. Then, I got a severe compression injury to my spine. All of the discs are herniated and bulged.”

Many veterans have similar stories, which is why Claybaker started the Claybaker D.U.S.T.O.F.F. Foundation, an organization which provides raised garden beds to veterans, even if they’re homeless.

“For whatever reason, the homeless veterans really take to taking ownership of their own food production,” Claybaker said.   “They really seem to appreciate somebody investing in them, investing in their long-term ability to sustain and provide for themselves.” 

A program designed to help veterans get into farming and gardening also helps them to grow stronger roots for themselves.  Jaye Townsend, president of the Louisiana Armed Forces Foundation, served in both Kosovo and Iraq.  He said touching the soil is a great way for military personnel to adjust to civilian life.

“Having a therapeutic or outdoor opportunity provides that escape for veterans that are just needing something,” Townsend said.  “It’s a purpose to connect to some opportunity.”

Like many of the veterans attending the Veterans Agriculture Workshop at the Veterans Affairs health care system in Pineville, Townsend is learning about grant and loan opportunities available to veterans through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Farming and gardening and just being able to put your hands in the dirt and work in the land and just outdoor therapy, we find it just provides that escape,” he said.  “Just the serenity and a purpose.  That purpose is what many veterans, or myself, experience when I got out.  We all go through that experience.  ‘But what’s next? What am I doing?’”

Like any other farmer, it can be tough for veterans to get into farming.  Claybaker said beyond the normal farming and gardening implements, wounded vets like himself need raised garden beds to access their plots. 

“Three feet seems to be about the happy medium between somebody in a wheelchair and somebody with a back injury to be able to move around the garden and be able to manipulate everything accordingly,” he said.

Even more than physical injuries, Claybaker said something as simple as gardening can get a veteran on the path to help with the psychological wounds.

“You watch them start out with the gardening and the next thing you know, they’re applying for jobs,” Claybaker said.  “Or they’re going to look into their GI bill or get their GED or something like that.”