A nonprofit organization is trying to get more Vermont veterans into the farming business. The Farmer Veteran Coalition only has about a dozen members in Vermont so far, but it’s already changing lives.
Frank Hill was having a rough go of it this past spring.
“There was just a succession of downfalls for me,” Hill says.
The 30-year-old Army veteran had finally launched the diversified farming operation he’s been trying to start for years. But it seemed like just about everything that could go wrong on his plot of land in Grand Isle was.
“And I was ready to throw in the towel,” Hill says.
So Hill’s friend and fellow veteran, Jon Turner, called for a short retreat. Other farmer veterans gathered to trade stories, and share insights.
“What happened there was a truly, truly beautiful thing,” Hill says. “I mean people just opened up, and, there’s so many people that are so hurt.”
Hill says the experience reaffirmed his belief in Integrity Farm, which is the name of his operation. In farming, Hill says he’s begun to find the inner peace that had eluded him after returning from war. And he says he’s more committed than ever to realizing his dream of a working farm where other veterans can come to apprentice.
“I’m looking for veterans with not a lot left to wake up every morning for,” Hill says.
Healing through growing is the idea behind the Farmer Veteran Coalition.
Last Friday, a group of veterans gathered at the Statehouse to discuss next steps for an organization that tries to help former servicemen and women become successful agriculture entrepreneurs. Stories like Hill’s demonstrated the impact this young program is already having on its members, members like John Hojek, a burly 29 year old with bright tattoos peeking out from the collar of his gray polo shirt.
A Marine who served in Iraq, Hojek has begun what he hopes will be a thriving flower farm West Burke. It’s called Gold Star Roses – a reference to the Gold Star families that have lost relatives in combat.
Hojek has hand delivered bouquets to four Gold Star families so far – he’s scheduled to give one to another family this week. He says he’ll donate a percentage of his farm’s eventual profits to a fund for the widows and children of servicemen killed in action. He says he got the idea after losing a friend from his battalion in Iraq.
“While watching his daughter grow up, in and out of foster care over the last 10 years, I realized that as a Marine my mission isn’t over yet,” Hojek says. “And I may have traded fatigues for overalls, but my mission remains the same, and that’s to protect my brothers, and to honor this country.”
Jon Turner, who served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army, is state director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, and owner of Wild Roots Farm in Bristol.
“This chapter is allowing those veterans who might become statistics to get out of that frame of mind and know that they do have worth and value,” Turner says.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition of Vermont has just adopted a new branding initiative, called Homegrown By Heroes. It’ll allow farmer veterans to use special labels to help them stand out in the retail landscape.
“Just as they would for organic or for non-GMO or any of those other labels, they can say that’s a veteran-owned operation, I want to be able to support that,” Turner says.
Turner has high hopes for the coalition, and eventually hopes to have a working farm where veterans can live and apprentice while they learn everything from crop rotation to business management.
For now though, Turner says the organization will try to help new farmers like Hill and Hojek gain their footing.
Hojek says he and other budding farmers are aware how difficult the business can be. But he says they’re accustomed the facing adversity. “You know, we’ve gone through hell before, and we can do it again,” Hojek says.
And Hojek says they’ll have each other’s backs on the farm fields in Vermont, just like they did on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Correction 9:40 a.m. 6/7/17 The original version of this story misidentified Mark Bowen as Michael Bowen.