This Kansas farm is giving veterans a new path to civilian life

Joe Graham devoted nine years of his life to the war in Afghanistan. Once home, she faced a huge task: finding a new purpose and a new community while struggling with PTSD symptoms.

“You serve as a soldier and you often see very bad things,” he says. “It is not easy to return to civilian life. I fought for many years.”

It was located on 308 acres outside of Manhattan, Kansas, where life turned around for Graham. He found it there SAVE the farm. SAVE, which stands for Servant Agricultural Vocational Education, has existed since 2016 as a non-profit organization to provide veterans with training in sustainable and regenerative agriculture combined with mental and physical health support services.

SAVE the farm. Photographer Alessandra Clark.

SAVE’s five-month program aims to support veterans in their transition to civilian life and prepare them for a career in agriculture if they choose.

“I think it appeals to a lot of veterans,” Graham said. “It’s peaceful here because it’s just you, the animals and the land. You get your hands dirty, but you get to work to make sure the soil can sustain itself.

Enrolling in the program in 2021 with his wife Jennifer, Graham is working to build a farming business. More than 50 veterans have graduated from the farm’s program since its inception. About 75 percent of its graduates chose the farming profession.

At such a time more than a third Suicide rates of US farm and ranch operators age 65 and older and veterans 1.5 is high SAVE Farm’s founders say more nonprofits offer multiple wins than the general population.

is SAVE’s idea Retired Colonel Gary LaGrange and his daughter Shari have seen the results of providing beekeeping training and therapy to soldiers near the Army’s Fort Riley in northern Kansas. Tod Bunting, CEO and co-founding member of SAVE, says he has seen positive changes at the farm.

Bunting, who is also in the military, believes the SAVE model needs to be replicated across the country. “I believe our veterans are in crisis because of service-related challenges,” he said. “This is especially important work for those with deep wounds, who may fall through the cracks, who need a tighter safety net and need to know that people care about them.”

Three part-time farm workers and two AmeriCorps workers help manage SAVE’s operations, which include goats, sheep, ducks, cattle and rabbits. They grow corn, sorghum, soybeans and wheat, as well as barley, triticale and alfalfa for cover crops. Currently, hazelnuts and blackberries are grown in the garden. There is also a high tunnel with an apiary for beekeeping and a teaching station for horticulture.

But Bunting says it’s a collaboration between Kansas State University, the USDA’s NCRS, the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts, the Nature Conservancy and other farmers that have allowed nonprofits to create a network of people to develop curriculum and conduct specialized education sessions. . . Enrollees in SAVE’s comparative agriculture programs are taught all aspects of agriculture, animal science, and plant science with sustainability in mind. Restorative practices such as no-till, cover crops, diversification, grazing for wildlife, and pollinator management are all integrated into farm programs.

In keeping with its vision of growing the program and graduating 100 veterans a year, the organization hopes its programs will become university-accredited under the GI Bill, meaning the government will cover enrollment costs.

Heidi Mehl, director of Kansas Water and Agriculture for The Nature Conservancy, also wants nonprofits to receive this accreditation. Mehl, who works with SAVE to design the curriculum and incorporate restorative practices, says the farm’s operation can have a significant impact on the environment.

“We’re hoping for ripples across the pond,” Mehl says. What he means is that ideally the graduate applies those practices on his own farm and then his neighbor sees them work and adopts them. Research has shown that farmers and ranchers are more inclined to try something different on their land if they see their neighbors doing it.

These restorative practices, such as rotational grazing, cover crops and promoting soil health, are key to building resilience in the soil, Mehl points to a third benefit of the farm model.

“I know how important agriculture is to our economy and our local communities in Kansas,” he said. “These restorative practices are another tool we can use to ensure our communities are strong.”

Joe and Jen Graham at SAVE Farm.

This approach to environmental protection and conservation is something that Joe and Jen Graham strive to honor in their farm operations. Currently, in the “incubation” period at SAVE Farm, the couple is raising a flock of 40 chickens, or what they hope is the humble beginnings of a thriving farm business. By spring, they aim to triple their flock by selling their eggs at local farmers markets. They then plan to pool some of the livestock they can raise.

In addition to being a springboard for the couple’s business, the Grahams say SAVE Farm and its community are the reason the future looks bright.

“It gave my life a sense of direction, an opportunity to heal and find my new life in this world,” Graham said. “It’s hard work, but it’s a good life.”

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