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Ground-OperationsOn screen, a soldier drives a tank through a war-ravaged neighborhood in Iraq. Cut to the next scene: We see a farmer driving a big orange tractor through a woodsy field. The film is Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields, a documentary that highlights the work of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC).

Michael O’Gorman, founder of the FVC, and independent filmmaker Dulanie Ellis, who produced and directed Ground Operations, screened the film at Berkeley’s David Brower Center last spring. Former Navy operations specialist Kelly Carlisle, founder of Acta Non Verba Youth Urban Farm in East Oakland, joined the panel discussion following the film. While exiting the Navy, Carlisle considered a career as an air traffic controller. But then she learned about the high suicide rate associated with the job.

“The FVC goes the extra mile to help returning vets realize they have options and a direction to move in,” says Carlisle. “It could be farming, greenhouse management, ranching, farm youth programs—anything to do with agriculture.”
Organic farmer and veteran O’Gorman founded FVC in 2008 to mobilize veterans to feed America. The group has a network of over 2,600 veterans in all 50 states and has amassed extensive expertise on veteran-owned agriculture. Based in Davis, California, the nonprofit stands ready—through conferences and events, mentoring, peer support, career counseling, and business planning—to support veterans transitioning to farm life. The group also provides grants for training, equipment, and land.

For some vets, pursuing farming is as simple as choosing a livelihood to feed one’s family. For others, feeding people around the nation or the globe becomes an idealistic mandate: a new mission. For soldiers who’ve seen combat, farming and gardening can be a lifesaver in the face of high unemployment, PTSD, brain injuries, delayed disability claims, and high suicide rates.

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life just being a guy who fought in the war in Iraq,” says former Marine Phil Northcutt, one of several young veterans interviewed in Ground Operations. “I learned that working with living beings, you become a nurturer instead of a destroyer.”

Now a rancher in Orland, California, near Chico, Northcutt is an FVC success story. He received a Bon Appétit Good Food Fellowship through the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund in 2011. With the funds, he was able to purchase a flock of sheep, equipment for his horses, and a livestock trailer. Northcutt is also helping to create a much-needed new generation of farmers. O’Gorman says that eight times as many farmers are over the age of 65 than under 35. Ellis agrees.
“The most important reason to support veterans to become farmers is because half of the farmers in America are retiring,” she says. “For our own food security, it is critical to train a new generation of food producers. Veterans are uniquely suited to the challenges and opportunities of agriculture, but they need education, mentoring, financial assistance, and community support as they develop the art and craft of sustainable agriculture.”


HomegrownLabelFVC is also rolling out a new food-marketing program called Homegrown by Heroes, intended to inspire consumers by communicating that the label’s products represent the labors of hardworking veterans who have chosen to become farmers to feed the nation.

The FVC has received hundreds of applications from around the United States since launching the program in May and hopes to certify 1,000 farmers by the end of 2015. (Rumor has it that there are two HBH certified farms in Northern California. One is Farbotnik Farm in Vallecito, near Angels Camp in the Sierra foothills. The other, out of Santa Rosa, is still under the radar.)

Homegrown by Heroes was developed by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, which has registered over 60 veteran-owned or veteran-run farms since 2013. As a result of Kentucky’s success, the Farm Credit System—a nationwide network of borrower-owned lending institutions and service organizations, created by Congress in 1916—has provided a $250,000 grant to FVC to expand the program nationally. To qualify, farmers must have served honorably or still serve in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, and must be at least 50{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} owner and/or operator of the farm business.



Kelly Carlisle at Acta Non Verba Youth Urban Farm
Photo by David Fenton

Kelly Carlisle founded Oakland’s Acta Non Verba Youth Urban Farm in 2010 when she discovered gardening’s therapeutic benefits after her military service. In Latin, acta non verba means “deeds not words.” At the farm, children do more than talk about farming: They plan, plant, harvest, and market the produce themselves. The farm sits on a quarter acre of land at the City of Oakland’s Tassafaronga Park at 83rd Avenue and East Street. Kids get to take home fresh produce, and 100{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} of proceeds from farmstand sales are deposited into individual savings accounts marked for each child’s education.

Since Edible East Bay last reported on Acta Non Verba in Fall 2012, the farm is hitting its stride: 160 kids attended the spring and summer camps in 2014, and now there are Thanksgiving and winter break camps on the schedule. Sales have expanded beyond the farmstand, with a CSA program and a parent health initiative.

“I’m on a mission to empower children and let them know they have a future and a say in how they live,” says Carlisle. “The goal is to have kids stick with our program throughout the years, grow their skill set, market their produce, and put money into their educational savings accounts.”

The FVC has been a key supporter, providing organic seeds and funds to purchase a heavy-duty truck. Through their network they have also boosted ANV’s visibility, which drives the donations that send kids to farm camp. Among many other honors, the farm was named Best of the West by Sunset last March and has received widespread media attention.

Filmmaker Dulanie Ellis sees the enormous benefits for veterans like Carlisle and Northcutt. “Farming and ranching is both restorative and satisfying for veterans because of the life-giving nature of the work,” says Ellis. “It continues their mission of service in a positive manner, as they are able to contribute to the health and well-being of their entire home community and beyond.”