MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In small lots and in backyards, something is taking root in a program called Armed to Urban Farm.
"We train veterans who are interested in urban agriculture versus sort of rural agriculture," said Mike Lewis, with the National Center for Appropriate Technology.
Thanks to a partnership between, NCAT, The U.S. Botanic Garden and other agencies, veterans are learning all the ins and outs of what it's like to farm in the middle of a city. In this case— Memphis.
“They're here to learn and connect with each other and see what they might be able to take back to their own operations,” said U.S. Botanic Garden education specialist Emily Hestness.
U.S. Army veteran Charley Jordan spent more than 28 years in the service.
"I saw how agriculture was therapeutic,” he said. “It was helpful for me and I figured this must be helpful for other veterans."
With his service dog, Dagger, by his side, he now runs a flower farm in Tennessee but joined this week-long program because he is interested in doing more.
"Just recently, I completed a certificate in horticulture therapy from the University of Tennessee,” Jordan said. “So, I'm slowly moving on to working more with veterans and mental health and using plants as healing."
In nine years, the Armed to Farm program has trained more than 800 veterans in agriculture across the country, including in California, Montana, Texas, Ohio, Maryland, and New York, among other states.
Mike Lewis, a sustainable agriculture specialist for the National Center for Appropriate Technology, helps run the program. He's also a veteran with a farm and understands the transition required.
"A disproportionate number of our veterans today come from rural farming communities,” he said.
The urban farming component began more recently and includes classroom instruction, where veterans learn not just farming techniques but also how to create a business plan for their farm.
"This isn't easy. I struggle every day on my farm. Things go wrong every day," Lewis said. "There's a serious amount of situational awareness that's required. You have to pay attention to your environment and your surroundings, and it's something that never stops, right? So, if you're in the military, the job never stops and farming is one of those things that never stops."
For U.S. Army veteran Colleen Beelman, the program presents a way to learn more about growing produce for her family, and also potentially earn an income.
“Finding good, fresh produce is really hard," Beelman said. "My baby this summer has been my wildflower gardens. To be like, 'Hey, wait, I can make money with my wildflower garden? Yes? Okay! Thank you!'”
It's an enthusiasm those behind the program hope these veterans will take home with them, as part of a growing community of veteran farmers.
"I think that we see a food system that needs work and repair,” Lewis said, “and we think that if you've already started the hardest job in the world, why can't we transition you into the second?"