After a career as a Hollywood filmmaker, Dulanie Ellis turned to producing documentaries when her daughter was born. Exploring stories about farmland protection in agricultural areas just north of Los Angeles, “once I went down the rabbit hole of agriculture, I stayed. It was really compelling to me, to think about how we were going to grow food sustainably,” Ellis said. She did a series of films and brought several of them to an ecological farming conference, where she met Michael O’Gorman, executive director of the Davis, Calif.-based nonprofit Farmer Veteran Coalition.
The coalition “mobilizes veterans to feed America,” said FVC Chief Operations Officer Jeff Macloud. “We try to liaise between the agricultural community and the veteran community, and encourage veterans with the interest, experience or a family background in agriculture to return to the field from a therapeutic standpoint. Working with your hands, working in the soil, working with animals, all assists in healing.”
FVC helps farmers and prospective farmers connect, through conferences and one-on-one partnerships.
“Some folks are just getting out (of the military) and need information and access to land. The barriers to farming can be pretty high, so those linkages are important. Land, equipment and infrastructure are very expensive prospects if you’re trying to start out from scratch,” Macloud said.
FVC also offers small grants to assist with purchases of greenhouses and farm equipment, seedstock to leverage into a larger herd, help with business planning, and connecting farmers who need help with veterans who want to farm. More than 2,000 veterans have become involved with FVC since it began out of the back of O’Gorman’s truck in 2008. Some contact FVC for books and information, others ask for specific help on creating food safety plans, getting legal advice or creating business financial planning models.
“I asked Michael if I could follow the growth of the organization, and the movement,” said Ellis, who went on to spend three years meeting and interviewing veterans who have transitioned from the battlefield to the farm.
“The veteran issue was new to me,” said Ellis. “What I have found most surprising about the project and where I learned the most was around the veterans: The kind of people the military people are. These are ‘can-do’ people. If they get on to something they do the risk assessment, the strategic planning, and just move ahead.”
Justen Garrity returned from Iraq to Aberdeen, Md., “and when I got home and transitioned to the National Guard, there were not civilian jobs available, the economy being the economy,” Garrity said. “I looked at the money in my pocket,” and came up with a business he could build on his own.
Always interested in sustainability and agriculture, Garrity looked into starting his own business in recycling and scrapping, while working on his MBA.
“This is a huge amount of material, and two thirds of what gets thrown out is compostable,” Garrity said. He spent eight months looking for a property to lease, to turn into a composting farm. Realtors wouldn’t return his calls. Eventually, he found the perfect piece of vacant land on Craigslist.
“When the economy picks up, they’ll build office buildings for contractors, but thanks to sequestration I’m set for a while,” Garrity said.
After putting together a business plan, “I just went for it. I had no customers lined up, I had never run a business before and had never done more than a backyard compost pile,” Garrity said. “The day I opened, I was the number three composting business in Maryland.”
Garrity’s business, Veteran Compost, started out as one man with a trailer hooked to the back of his SUV. Since July 2010 the business has grown to hire three full-time employees and half a dozen part-timers. Though he’s open to hiring anyone with a good work ethic, he prefers to hire veterans and military family members.
“I don’t put much stock in degrees. We try to judge a person on a personal level,” Garrity said.
FVC is expanding its web site to help agricultural businesses find veterans to employ and mentor. The organization also has plans to reach out to minority and female veterans, disabled veterans and veterans interested in taking over family farms.
“In Washington (state), there is a farmer with several businesses, including a seed company. He’s looking for a veteran to learn the business and take it over, because his three daughters are pursuing other careers. That kind of linkage is what we’d like to make more often, and we’ll do that once our website is up and running,” Macloud said.
Once those connections are made, and veterans have done the research and planning to create a successful business, “hard work will take you pretty far,” said Gerrity. “I’ve made mistakes, but that’s just the learning process. Luckily, keeping your nose to the grindstone is pretty effective for overcoming a lot of that.”
As Ellis met farmers across the country, she was struck by the similarity between military service and agriculture.
“The skills it takes to be strong in the military are very similar to what it takes to be a farmer: Working odd hours in all kinds of physical conditions; not whining about it, just doing it; working with sophisticated, expensive, heavy equipment,” Ellis said. “Just about anything you have done in the military, except for sniper, you could find a similar track. The skill set is highly translatable. At the same time, it is incredibly restorative.”
For veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other physical injuries, agriculture’s rhythms and peaceful but demanding work can help restore health and calm, Ellis learned as she met with farmers. She also was impressed with the impact farming has on families who had been used to repeated, long deployments.
“Farming is a family business. It’s not 8 to 5. The whole family is involved, good and bad. The good news about that is when you’ve been gone for a year or more on deployment, you’re a stranger to the kids. It’s hard to integrate back in, very often,” Ellis said. “But going in the back yard and digging a garden with your kids, even if you don’t want to be a farmer or rancher, you get the same benefit.”
Many of the people Ellis included in her film are exploring non-traditional agriculture: Hydroponics in abandoned warehouses, rooftop gardens in large cities.
“It’s the true American mythos of pioneer and food producer. It’s great for kids, and you can do it in the city. We talk about urban agriculture in this. There are a million ways to go about this,” Ellis said. “You don’t need 500 acres in the country. I think urban agriculture is the new face of agriculture.”
For Gerrity, finding a career that he could care about about makes the work of launching his own company worthwhile.
“They say ‘pick something you’re passionate about’ and that’s cliche, but I’m more motivated to do this than open up a Subway franchise like everybody else,” Gerrity said. “I think farming is an honorable profession. People forgot about that for a generation, and people are coming back to that with local farms.”
Gerrity, Ellis and Macloud agree—with an aging population of family farmers, a new generation has to step up and learn how to grow the food we all eat.
“Where is our food going to come from in 10 years? The average person farming on the Eastern Shore is in their 60s. It’s this big problem I don’t think enough people are worried about,” Gerrity said.
Ellis’ film, Ground Operations, is dedicated to helping people see both the need for a new generation of farmers and the opportunity veterans can find when they transition from the battlefield to the farmfield. Ground Operations will be one of more than 200 films shown during the 22nd annual Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, March 18-30 in more than 65 venues across metropolitan D.C. Helen Strong, the festival’s public affairs director, called Ground Operations, “a fabulous film about food security with a national service emphasis.”
To learn more about the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, see past years’ films or find this year’s venues for showings, discussions and other events, visit www/dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org. For more information about the documentary Ground Operations: Battlefields to farmfields, visit www.groundoperations.net.