Through a blend of peer mentoring, community farming, and “dirt therapy,” Growing Veterans uses sustainable agriculture as a catalyst for ending homelessness, suicide, and addiction among veterans in Western Washington. The program’s fresh approach to veteran reintegration, according to Growing Veterans’ Co-founder Christopher Brown, emerged from his own journey as a veteran who found solace growing food and nurturing life in the garden. With two primary farms, as well as a network of farmer’s markets and affiliated non-profit farms, the program offers veterans an opportunity to work beside their families, fellow veterans, and community volunteers, recapturing a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. While creating a peer-support network to end the damaging effects of veteran isolation, the program enables veterans to acquire agricultural skills, easing their transition into the civilian world—and increasing the likelihood that they’ll become farm owners or operators to replace our nation’s aging farmer population (in Washington State, the average age of farmers is 58 years). To date, approximately one veteran monthly has been placed into agricultural occupations, while supporting organic food production and providing hope, purpose, and camaraderie to veterans in a transformative approach to building community capital.
Five Questions for Christopher Brown
1. What needs does Growing Veterans address and how?
Combining military veteran reintegration with sustainable agriculture, we empower military vets to grow food, communities, and each other. With an emphasis on suicide prevention through peer support, our holistic model addresses veteran isolation, a symptom of PTSD and the root cause of a multitude of issues facing the veteran population.
2. Tell us about a moment that inspired your project.
I carry guilt from being a survivor of three combat deployments when 41 of the Marines from my battalion never made it home. I decided to dedicate my life to ensuring their deaths were not in vain. Having lost nearly 15 others to suicide, this motivation will never leave me.
3. What is the biggest challenge you face?
Beyond the trend of 18-22 veteran suicides per day in this country, our biggest challenge as an organization is securing funding that will support the ongoing development of our programs. We are establishing systems that will sustain themselves long-term, but we need financial support in order to get us there.
4. What other leaders have informed your work?
Jake Wood at Team Rubicon has probably been my greatest inspiration. Serving in the same Marine battalion with him and watching Team Rubicon evolve in disaster relief, I’ve strived for Growing Veterans to have the same impact in the field of sustainable agriculture. I hope to find ways for our two organizations to collaborate.
5. Describe someone who highlights what your project is all about.
Every Thursday at our Farmer’s Market outside the Veterans Affairs hospital in Seattle, one can witness the essence of what Growing Veterans is about. Learning about our mission, receiving free or reduced-price organic produce, and hearing about our common experiences as veterans and caregivers brings many to tears on a weekly basis.