Veterans: A New Generation of Farmers
In May 2004, his nine-year military career ended by a mortar blast in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, an Army infantry squad leader, Adam Burke, returned home with shrapnel in his legs and head, a Purple Heart, and a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He managed to earn a business degree in spite of the cognitive impairments his injuries had left him, but was still, a few years later, working at an office job, struggling with anxiety and hyper-vigilance. His coordination and balance remained poor, and he still walked with a cane.
His worried wife and family urged Burke to return to a small plot of land on his family’s farm in Webster, Fla., near Jacksonville. He had joined the Army to get away from the farm, but now the things that had driven him away – the quiet, the isolation, the hard physical work – seemed much more attractive than being crammed with a bunch of co-workers inside four walls.
As Burke tells the story, the planting and harvesting of his first crop – blueberries – was a transformative, almost religious, experience. He discovered he loved everything about the farm – the space, the calm, the work, even the smells. One by one, he was joined by other veterans looking for a quiet place to regroup. Working together, they shed their discomfort at being around other people. Burke’s coordination and balance returned. He lost the cane. He began teaching kickboxing to teenagers in the evenings.
Today, Burke, in addition to the kickboxing and his day job at a security company, is CEO of the all-volunteer Veterans Farm, a 13-acre plot in Jacksonville where veterans serve a six-month fellowship, learning the skills and knowledge needed to establish their own farming careers. Open to anyone who has served two years, the fellowship, begun in August 2011, has most often been awarded to veterans with some type of disability rating.
“The majority of our guys, I would say 95 percent, have been in a combat zone,” said Burke. “Two or three tours. Five of them out there in the program right now have a disability rating of 60 percent or higher. Our farm is set up to be handicap accessible. We have wheelchair ramps. We grow things in elevated gardens and beds. We try to create an atmosphere where they can overcome their disabilities.”
In the first year of the program, 15 veterans received fellowships – funded entirely through private donations and Burke’s fundraising efforts. But Burke said these people aren’t the only veterans who come to Jacksonville to learn farming. “A lot of people want to get into it,” he said. “They don’t qualify for the fellowship program, but they come out and work alongside our guys and learn how to grow the blueberries. They learn how to grow the peppers. We set them up so they can do sharecropping on parts of the land here.”