Veterans Are Putting Down Their Guns and Taking Up Farming

In Oak Cliff, ex-warriors charge into the local food movement.

"We really just did so much over there," Jeffers says, his missions encompassing more than just street battles. "We'd help provide basic services to people who never had them before."

Back at home, the missions are gone, but the appetite for leadership and meaningful work remains. That's why this soldier is carefully tending rows of rich soil and vegetables in the middle of a neighborhood in Oak Cliff. In that dirt, he hopes to not only mend his own body, but to find a new role. With a little luck and a lot of work, Jeffers and his business partner, Steve Smith, will expand what started out as a few garden planters into a business that brings fresh, organic produce to their community. They, along with other vets around the country, are breathing life into the burgeoning farm-to-table movement. Vets just might become our new model farmers.

Smith and Jeffers initially became friends while stationed at Fort Hood and kept in touch throughout their enlistments. Smith joined the Army in 2002, served for three years, then was recalled in 2005 and was stationed as part of a security force at Camp Buehring, a deployment center in northwestern Kuwait. The base was a staging post for troops headed north into Iraq. They provided security for the base and day trips into Iraq along with responding to whatever other incidents occurred in the area.

Vets James Jeffers (left) and Steve Smith are farming Oak Cliff one yard at a time.
Dylan Hollingsworth
Vets James Jeffers (left) and Steve Smith are farming Oak Cliff one yard at a time.
After their time in the Army, Jeffers and Smith have turned to the nice soil of Oak Cliff to get back to health.
Dylan Hollingsworth
After their time in the Army, Jeffers and Smith have turned to the nice soil of Oak Cliff to get back to health.

Smith experienced many of the same issues Jeffers did after he got out in 2006. He struggled to find a meaningful role and was, in general, having a hard time adjusting to civilian life.

"All the complaining ... just so much complaining," Smith says, with a small smile on his face and a soft shake of his head. "But I just couldn't get angry all the time. The best thing for me was to get on my hands and knees and grab some dirt."

After Jeffers retired from the Army, Smith moved his family to Oak Cliff to go into business with him. The plan was to buy older homes, make them as energy efficient and green as possible, then resell them. They both entered Cedar Valley College's Green Training Program, but then the economy bottomed out and houses weren't moving.

Meanwhile, in addition to the physical and emotional wounds they were trying to heal, both were also dealing with some serious gastrointestinal issues. "My intestinal flora was just completely messed up," says Jeffers, who had become lactose-intolerant while in the Army. He and Smith point to a cornucopia of government-issued vaccines as the culprit.

They may be right. In January, the Institute of Medicine, an independent, nonprofit organization that works as the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, released a report on chronic multi-symptom illnesses (CMI), which is an "array of long-term medically unexplained symptoms" seen in as many as one in every three veterans deployed during the first Gulf War in 1991 and, more recently, veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ongoing gastrointestinal issues lasting more than six months compose one of six primary categories of CMI.

"I had to fix my stomach issues," Jeffers says. "My family and I had already started eating more organic food just because of the basic benefits, but the more I learned about organic farming, the more I fell in love with it."

It started when Smith planted a few gardens in the back of his house to supplement family meals. Soon Jeffers followed suit and started digging up his yard as well. With a careful diet that included vegetables from the gardens, their stomach issues started to improve. Also for Jeffers, as with Smith, digging in the dirt just felt good. Reaping a bounty, all while doing something good for their health and the earth, created some much needed harmony.

Over the course of two years, Smith and Jeffers slowly transformed their entire yards into small farms. Every spare piece of land has been set aside to grow, from the strip between the sidewalk and street, to a small space along the alley in the back, to the sides of the house and everywhere in between. "At first it was just a few raised gardens" Jeffers says. "Now my wife worries the kids will have space to play."

About the same time Smith started tilling his yard, he noticed a slow transition taking place in Oak Cliff. The restaurant Bolsa was selling customers on the farm-to-table movement, evidence the two weren't the only ones asking questions about where their food comes from and how it's made.

So, Jeffers (no relation to Bolsa co-owner Chris Jeffers) and Smith looked into the prospect of creating a business to deliver fresh organic produce to local stores, markets and restaurants. "The idea is that we grow healthy food, feed our families, then sell the rest locally," Smith explains.

But they had a lot to learn, so last year the two entered a training program with a national outreach organization called the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), which helps vets start new careers in farming and agriculture. The mission of the coalition is to "mobilize veterans to feed America" and it awards grants for equipment and tools to help small farmers get started.

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If every city were to embrace this idea, it would put a dent in Monsanto, no?