Thanks to the VA FARMS program, farmers are in the dell and in the city.
Would be farmers are no longer in the dell! They can be found in the city too, thanks to the Veterans Affairs Farming and Recovery Mental Health Services (FARMS) program now celebrating its 5th anniversary! For five years, more than 180 Veterans have been learning about the agricultural industry to train for new jobs or for the healing power that comes with growing things at TALMAR Farms in Baltimore County, which serves as the program’s community partner.
The VA FARMS program began as a collaboration between LaVerne Harmon, the program manager for Vocational Rehabilitation Services at the VA Maryland Health Care System, and Mary Lambert Gardner, a clinical phycologist and coordinator for the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center at the Perry Point VA Medical Center, and supported by a grant awarded by the VA Office of Rural Health as a pilot program.
At the most recent VA FARMS graduation in October, 10 Veterans ranging from age 29 to 76 received certificates marking their successful completion of the 15-week course. Part of the Vocational Rehabilitation Service, the VA FARM program came in response to Veterans’ requests for more agricultural vocational training. Both a recovery program and a training program for the agricultural sector, it offers technical agricultural and gardening skills, business skills, and life and therapeutic skills that aid in recovery and in the transition to civilian life.
“Veterans often talk to us about the fact that it's incredibly therapeutic. If they're still working on some of their treatment goals, being out in this beautiful setting, working collaboratively with other Veterans gives them a common goal, a common mission,” said Aaron Jacoby, director of the Mental Health Clinical Center for the VA Maryland Health Care System.
The course begins with learning how to assess soil composition and how to germinate seeds then progresses to learning how to care for the seedlings and plants, how to manage outcomes of weather, how to harvest and bring crops to the market, and even dealing with crop loss after deer and rabbits feast on them. At the start of each day at the TALMAR Farm, Veterans begin by centering themselves in the Sensory Garden, where they can spend time with plants like chocolate mint, peppermint, lamb’s ear, lavender, and others that stimulate their senses. After their centering time in the Sensory Garden, they advance to the fields for planting or harvesting or to check in on the chickens and the beehives. The course is taught in both a classroom setting and out in the fields, spurring participants to gain a deeper appreciation for nature and the ability to pursue jobs in supermarket produce departments, in florist shops, as truck drivers transporting produce, among other positions. Some have purchased farms of all sizes.
“I was fighting depression,” said Al Johnson, 76, the oldest Veteran in the course. “Before I couldn’t move off the couch. Now I can’t wait to get up and come here to meet up with everyone. I have purpose now,” he said, noting that he and the other Veterans in the program have forged such a strong and close bond, they consider themselves a family.
“Being in this beautiful environment and working on the farm gives Veterans a sense of purpose,” said Harmon. “They have a reason to get up in the morning and they know it's not just doing drudge work, they're coming here and planting and growing and they are empowered,” she added.
Lance Jubb, a Navy Veteran, says participating in the program goes beyond digging in the dirt. “You just have this one little seed in your hand, you plant it in the ground, you watch it grow, you nurture it, it proves to yourself… you can have a life after the military,” he added.
Because this year marked the 5th anniversary of the program, a resource fair held as part of the most recent VA FARMS graduation ceremony featured community partners that assist Veterans with other issues such as homelessness, transportation, education, and other training initiatives.
To learn more about the VA FARM program, please contact LaVerne Harmon at Laverne.Harmon@va.gov or (410) 642-2411 extension 25861.