Veterans Are Putting Down Their Guns and Taking Up Farming
James Jeffers stands in front of a house in Oak Cliff spraying jets of water onto a large garden carved out of what was once a solid mix of St. Augustine grass and weeds. Along a quiet residential street otherwise lined with thick green lawns, the brown plot of upturned earth is an abrupt break in the scenery.
Tiny droplets arch in front of him catching the late morning sunlight before peppering the dark soil, but despite the scene, Jeffers doesn't look much like a typical farmer. His thick build leans toward athletic, and his heavy beard conceals an easy smile. Tattoos peek out from the back of his leg.
Farming wasn't his first choice of professions. He spent most of the past decade in the Army, including two tours in Baghdad, in 2004-'05 and then again in 2006-'08. Things got messy, though, particularly on Haifa Street, a 2-mile stretch through the middle of Baghdad that snakes alongside the Tigris River.
A line of palm trees runs along the median, and each side of Haifa Street is dotted with clusters of sandy brown apartments. The southern end of the street banks hard to the west, following the river that leads directly into the Green Zone, where a large sandstone arch marks the entrance — a monument that eventually became known as Assassin's Gate.
After the U.S. invasion in 2003, Haifa Street, situated between Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods, became a fault line constantly teetering on the brink of chaos. American troops patrolled the area, but the high windows, rooftops and balconies offered a tactical advantage to whoever was standing on them, particularly if they had rocket-propelled grenades. This large swath of real estate in the middle of the city became a battleground between those intent on chaos and those trained to mitigate it.
Jeffers, along with the 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry Regiment and the Iraqi National Guard, maintained as much order as possible on the street. While some residents fled, others put up a fight in hopes of staying in their neighborhoods. American and Iraqi troops worked alley by alley, building by building and floor by floor through the high-rises to clear out terrorists in a constant game of cat and mouse. By 2004, the stretch was nicknamed "Grenade Alley."
"The members of the Iraqi National Guard were just like any of us," Jeffers recalls. "They were dads who had families and just wanted to keep their neighborhoods safe. And they were wonderful to work with. When we were out on patrols it was hard to tell who should be in the neighborhood and who shouldn't, but an Iraqi can spot an Iranian a mile away."
One day while out on patrol with the ING, Jeffers and the rest of the "Headhunters" of the 1-9 Cav were working to clear an area when they came under fire. Insurgents hiding in the maze of buildings had surrounded them and trapped some in a small alley.
The Americans hunkered down while Jeffers and another soldier positioned themselves outside the alley and kept the fighters at bay. Eleven soldiers were injured from the initial attack, and they waited for reinforcements to arrive.
Jeffers took hits from three hand grenades during the battle, but eventually he and the 1-9 Cav all got out alive. For that, he received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with a "V" device, which indicates an act of valor.
Throughout his time in Iraq, Jeffers had at least a half-dozen encounters with car bombs, grenades, RPGs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and walked away with shrapnel scars covering 50 percent of his body. Most of those wounds have healed by now, but multiple back-to-back concussions led to moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI). Over time, everyday tasks became murky. His senses weren't as sharp as they once were, which is a handicap in combat.
"After I got home from my second tour, I couldn't do simple things, like make coffee," Jeffers says. "I went through three coffee makers. One day I'd forget to put the water in the tank. The next day I'd forget to put the grounds in the filter. It was so frustrating. After a while, I realized it was time to get some help."
Therapy at a TBI clinic at Fort Hood in Killeen helped Jeffers re-engineer the delicate synapses in his brain. Acupuncture helped with back pain. But the part that really hurt, the wound he's still trying to heal, was getting out.
"I just loved the Army," Jeffers says. "I was one of the lucky ones who figured out what they were good at. I felt like a kid, living out of my backpack on the other side of the world, shooting guns."
Jeffers had a knack for leadership. After nine years, he'd made sergeant first class, a rank that usually comes with more than 15 years of service.
After he "reluctantly agreed to a medical retirement" in 2009 because of his injuries, Jeffers needed a new role. He was on full disability and the transition back to civilian life was tough. He's not inclined to lie on the couch waiting to see what will happen next.
"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.
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.
"They've been great to us," Jeffers says. "We traveled up to Iowa and Philadelphia to tour different farms and learn about different strategies for farming on small plots of land from vets that are already in business."
Particularly, they visited farms that were practicing small-plot intensive farming, an agriculture system based on highly productive small-scale farming techniques.
"It's really about commercial farming on less than an acre," says Jeffers, which is why the courses appealed to him and Smith.
Ross Erickson, a former Marine sergeant with the FVC, says the organization sees a trend across the country of veterans looking for a meaningful, and often rewarding, line of work.
"It helps vets feel like they're part of something important," Erickson says. "They come back and need a meaning and a purpose in their work."
With help through the FVC, trips to other farms and their own experiences, Jeffers and Smith were ready to take the next step. Just this year they started an urban farming business, Eat the Yard (eattheyard.net).
Now they're working to collect more premium space throughout Oak Cliff and Dallas. At West 9th Street and Zang Boulevard, across from Cliff Temple Baptist Church, part of a large city block has been transformed into a community garden with more than a dozen narrow, raised beds lined up side by side. Different groups and individuals tend the various plots, which are owned by the church.
Jeffers manages several of the beds and seeded one with Swiss chard in late winter. The crop grew tall with thick dark leaves balancing on bright red stalks. He had to mend a fence to keep out a stray dog that was trampling the young stems, but for the most part, plots like this come along quickly. As soon as the chard was ready, he carefully harvested and washed the big leaves and then delivered them to local restaurants and stores, like Ann's Health Food Center and Market, which is located farther south on Zang Boulevard.
Among community gardens, friends who have offered up their yards and tomato planters on rooftops, Smith and Jeffers estimate they have a solid acre of vegetable-producing land scattered throughout the city. That might not seem like much, but it's a lot of work for the two of them, especially since Smith's main job is in foundation repair.
When asked about the viability of making a living selling organic produce, the two laugh a little. It's a nervous laugh. They worry about the feasibility of this venture "every night." Rehabilitation and meaningful goals aside, local organic produce is more expensive than its mass-farmed counterpart and managing a large working farm spread out across Dallas is no easy task.
Jeffers' ultimate goal is to develop the business enough that he can get off disability. Smith dreams of moving his family to the country and providing produce to a much larger area.
Smith realizes the idea of succeeding with a local farm in Dallas comes with a mountain of challenges. "It's hard to convince most people that a $4 bundle of hyper-local organic kale, harvested just that morning, is better than the anonymous, yet cheaper brand next to it at the store. It's hard to put a born-on date on kale."
Nevertheless, some are biting. Urban Acres, an Oak Cliff-based farm stand and grocery store, started a community co-op in 2009, filling bins with local organic fruits, vegetables and proteins. They began with just 19 families and now have more than 2,000 members who pick up seasonal products every two weeks.
Urban Acres marketing director Brandon Perez says the move toward farm-to-table is exploding across the metro area. Urban Acres now has 12 small "farm stands" (co-op pickup points) throughout the area, including spots in Frisco and McKinney. What's most interesting to Perez is the broadening demographics of the typical co-op buyer.
"It looks different, and it's quite beautiful," Perez says. "It's great to see the connection between the hipster in Oak Cliff that drives a Prius and a mom in Frisco that drives an Escalade. They both have a desire for real whole food. The commitment isn't tied to a movement necessarily anymore. It comes from more of an overall concern for our health."
That commitment from the co-op members also helps ensure farmers have buyers for their produce, which eases the risk in this fickle business. While Eat the Yard supplies fresh produce to some local restaurants and grocery stores, primarily Ann's Health Food, it doesn't produce enough food yet to take part in the co-op program regularly.
Some restaurants go so far as to provide on the menu the name of the farm from which a carrot was plucked, but any chef worth his weight in curry powder is by design inclined to buy seasonal and local whenever he can.
Bolsa chef Jeff Harris is an example.
"For the past few years we've seen new farmers pop up here and there," Harris says, "and it's really helping us to catch up with other parts of the country in those terms. We certainly have our limitations with the weather and growing season in Texas, but being able to buy something that is grown literally down the street is awesome."
Usually organic products are at a premium, he says, but when the produce is grown in-season and the transportation cost is minimal, it keeps the end price down. Another bonus is the simple dialogue between the farmer and the cook.
"Last time Steve was in here we talked about what I'd like to see in the coming months, so it's great to be able to have that conversation with a local farmer and then eventually have it on the menu," Harris says.
Several restaurants in the Bishop Arts District are also working on incorporating Eat The Yard's vegetables into their kitchens. Jeffers has even arranged a two-way exchange for composting: While delivering the produce, he picks up waste from some of the restaurants to add to composting piles, bringing the cycle full circle.
While Jeffers and Smith talk about the rewards of their work, another goal they have for Eat the Yard is to help other veterans who are struggling through the difficult process of acclimating back to civilian life. They want to help them find a fulfilling role as well.
"The idea is that we bring in other veterans as interns and teach them the work and the business," Smith says. "Then, they build their own networks within their own communities, and so on and so on."
Smith also has other motives for bringing in vets — they have the work ethic required for farming. "A lot of people are interested in urban farming, but they get tired of it and quit when it gets hard. Veterans won't quit."
Eat The Yard is still early in the game, though. Additional employees are a way off, much less retirement-proof profits. "When you look at all the work that goes into growing just one stalk of kale, then taking it to a store or restaurant to sell it," says Smith, pausing. "It's hard right now."
The latest information from the Organic Trade Association (OTA) shows that sales of organic foods rose more than 9 percent from 2010 to 2011. Going back to 2002, the organic segment has grown more than 238 percent. And while the OTA report warns against "consumer confusion over the benefit of organic versus natural versus non-GMO versus local" they heed the importance of the local "sweet spot," where consumers with a limited budget choose cheaper local products over pricier imported organic options.
Other vet-operated organic farms around the nation are capitalizing on that very niche. Former Marine Sergeant Colin Archipley and his wife, Karen, founded Archi's Acres in Escondido, California, in 2006. They transformed a rundown and neglected avocado orchard into an organic hydroponic farm. Now, in addition to working the farm and selling produce, they employ and train other vets. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart did a segment on the farm, which focused on former MSNBC pundit Dylan Ratigan, who traded his life in front of a camera to invest in Archi's Acres.
After years of running the farm, the Archipleys have learned plenty about the challenges of the modern-day farmer. Karen puts it in perspective: "It's hard, but I also think military life can be pretty hard. Agriculture gives vets a mission that is greater than themselves."
And in terms of the market for local organic produce, they can't keep up with demand. "There's never enough," Karen says.
Jeffers and Smith are working on similar plans, specifically greenhouses and hydroponic systems, which are the most sustainable method of growing large amounts of produce, but those setups don't come cheap. And while they try to cultivate the ground they currently have, the challenges come at them every day.
"We live in such a blessed society," Smith says. "We don't appreciate that we have pineapples in stores year-round. That just fascinates me. But if I'm ever going to fully retire from foundation repair and be an Oak Cliff farmer, the community has to support it."
There's no doubt that Dallasites are supporting more local farmers. More people are asking questions about what's in their food, how it's grown, where it's from and how all of that affects their long-term health. These are the very same reasons Jeffers and Smith dug up their yards in the first place.
As local communities embrace urban gardens, organic produce and the farm-to-table movement, there's an opportunity for veterans like Jeffers and Smith to gracefully slide into the crucial role of the new American farmer. With some luck, they'll help us till and toil our way back to health, one row and yard at a time.
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