By Emily Hoover | email@example.com
Photos by Robert H. Heinrich
Down a long dirt road on the border of Duval and Clay counties, where the open air is clean and the sun just begins to peek through the clouds, is a farm that houses organic fruits, vegetables, livestock, honeybees and other commodities.
But for Adam Burke, founder of Veterans Farm in Jacksonville, this farm is far from ordinary. The disabled combat veterans who work the farm during a six-month fellowship are more valuable than the goods they produce.
“I am very selective in [the veterans] I choose,” Burke, a U.S. Army veteran, said. “This is not about a paycheck. It’s about tranquility, peace in life, people who are looking for a change, to grow in their lives.”
According to a New York Times report, 30 percent of veterans between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed. This statistic, the report said, is double that of civilians in the same age bracket.
Burke, a purple heart recipient, served in the U.S. Army for nine years. After suffering injuries from a mortar attack during a 15-month tour in Iraq, he retired in 2004.
But the transition from military life to civilian life was complicated, he said.
“When I got back, I found it difficult to get help from Veterans Affairs (VA) and the government,” he said. “I was medicated; I knew I needed a new solution. Got to take the bull by the horns.”
Burke, who was raised on a farm in Webster, Fla., said he purchased the farmland in April 2010 after fundraising. He said it took another year to purchase farm equipment. The operation was “up and running” in August 2011.
“The path has been clear ever since,” he said. “And we’re always expanding. The reason why we grow is because we’re tangible. We don’t correlate with the VA or the government.”
He said the money Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) donated became a wheelchair ramp. Also, a $5,200 grant from the Good People Fund was partially used to fund a greenhouse currently built by Navy veteran Patrick Sanders and Army veteran Frank Wade.
In order to become a participant on Veterans Farm, there are a few qualifications to meet as well as an application process, Burke said. Program participants must be post 9/11 veterans who have two or more years of service, they must have been honorably discharged, and they must have at least a zero percent disability rating. Veterans must also be in good standing with the community, Burke said.
“If they’re dealing with drugs and alcohol, we won’t take them,” he said. “They have to be able to take this opportunity. We want to be able to spread the word.”
Veterans Farm’s mission is to provide employment for disabled combat veterans and teach them about agriculture. The participants, who work 20 hours per week, receive housing and a stipend to live off. The food they grow feeds themselves and their families.
“Some of them will start their own farms,” Burke said. “Some will work with U.S. Department of Agriculture or other bigger farms. We have recruiting all over the country and a few hundred volunteers who put the word out. But mostly, the veterans come to us.”
In addition to providing employment opportunities, Veterans Farm also exists as natural therapy for combat veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Approximately 20 percent of veterans returning to the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD and over 1,000 suicide attempts per month have been recorded, a Department of Veteran Affairs report said. The Veterans Administration also said 100,000 veterans received PTSD treatment in 2011 alone.
While Veterans Farm is home to varieties of organically grown blueberries and peppers — specifically datil peppers and scorpion peppers, which are some of the hottest in the world — it also raises chickens, turkeys and goats. Burke said the animals serve as more than just commodities for sale.
“It’s not just about fresh eggs,” he said. “We all like eating clean. A lot of our supporters believe in organic farming. But it’s about chicken sitting, watching them and holding them. There is so much therapy in working with these animals. It takes your mind off the tragedies of war.”
Shaun Valdivia, a U.S. Marine Corp veteran and public relations coordinator for Veterans Farm, agrees.
“Half of it is therapy,” said Valdivia, who graduated from the program in February and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. “Getting out of the city — it’s better than just sitting around. [I like] watching the animals do their own thing, and taking care of someone other than myself for a little while.”
“I didn’t look for a job. I wanted to hang out,” he said. “I had a hard time getting unemployment and the transition was rough. It’s hard being around people who hadn’t been overseas. If I’m telling you a story, you wouldn’t understand unless you were there.”
Valdivia also said therapy is limited with the VA.
“I don’t see psychologists as much as I should,” he said. “I only see her once a month. But I’ve learned a lot of stuff around [the farm]. Now I’m planting around my house, my parents’ house.”
Valdivia said he has been incubating chicken eggs and sees a profitable venture in selling them. He said he also has an interest in honeybees and scorpion peppers, which “sell pretty high.”
“People make lotions with hot peppers and chap sticks with beeswax,” he said. “I’d probably be in my nutshell, I’d be nowhere mentally [without Veterans Farm]. It gives you a release to come out here and think about getting better. If not, you can think about something else.”
Burke said social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook have given his program a lot of attention. He said CNN visited the farm and he has been “extremely blessed with media.”
But Flagler College’s Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) pledges to do more than create publicity for Veterans Farm.
Flagler junior Elizabeth Houston said SIFE knew they had stumbled upon a “solid project” when Keith Bailey, owner and CEO of Dr. Datil Food Products, approached them and told them about the farm producing Veterans Farm Datil Salt from the peppers they grow.
“The vets are such wonderful people and the farm means so much to them,” said Houston, a communication and political science double major. “We decided we wanted to help them share the story.”
Houston said getting involved with Walmart’s Get on the Shelf competition was the perfect way to help spread the word.
Get on the Shelf is a contest that gives the public the opportunity to vote on new products not carried by Walmart. The three winners, which are decided by the public’s votes, will be featured on Walmart.com. The grand prize winning company is given the opportunity to showcase their product on the shelves of Walmart.
The voting is open from March 7 to April 3 and after the top 10 products are selected, there are two additional weeks of voting, Houston said.
“When ‘Get on the Shelf’ came up,” Houston said, “our team decided this is something we really wanted to commit to. Literally, Veterans Farm is happening right in our backyard and nobody knows it. ”
In addition to networking and tweeting, Houston said SIFE also participated in radio and newspaper interviews on behalf of Veterans Farm. The datil salt was the first product released on Walmart’s press release, she said, which “means something.”
Even though the club wants to win the contest and will present their project in a national competition in May, the project is much larger than Veterans Farm Datil Salt, she said.
“It’s not about the product. It’s about what’s behind it,” she said. “We will be talking about this story because people need to know veterans are struggling. No matter what Obama says about increasing spending, there is not enough support or therapy for these men and women.”
“We’ll be selling berries soon,” he said. “We’ll be selling fresh fish in eight or nine months. (Get on the Shelf’) is a great cause. It opens up a lot of opportunities for us to sell a lot of products in their stores, like blueberries, fish, peppers and jam. The more we sell, the more jobs we create for veterans.”
No matter the outcome of the contest, Burke said he knows Veterans Farm will continue to expand with the help of volunteers, program participants and donors.
“We’re transplanting datil peppers, putting them into the big pots right now,” Burke said. “I know datil peppers are popular in St. Augustine. We’ll have thousands. If anybody’s interested, send them our way.”
Read about a new group for veteran students at Flagler College. >>Click here