Land they may return to . . .
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But these days some have "beaten their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks," as if religiously converted. They have crossed a bridge to the opposite of their immediate past: farming, the ultimate peace profession, most needed in a world burgeoning toward nine billion mouths to feed. Nurturing their embattled minds, these veterans work to feed America and ultimately the world with organic produce and meats, another form of nurture, with methods already developed, some drought resistant, that require a fraction of the water needed by conventional if not GMO farming. Soil, a most precious commodity, can be kept moist through combination with mulch, both covered by a layer of dried plants like grass, farmer Colleman Ruiz later told me. A passer-by might wonder how produce can grow out of dry grass.
These days wheat is even being grown on desert land in Phoenix, Arizona.
We know more about outer space than we do about soil, said Dulanie Ellis, director and co-producer, with Raymond Singer, of the award-winning documentary Ground Operations: Battle Fields to Farm Fields, from which all of the information in this article is derived. Agriculture takes a huge toll on the environment. Sustainability is of vital importance. "It's about connecting with our roots and our roots are in the soil," she added later. Ground Operations is one of two hundred films being featured at the Environmental Film Festival between March 18 and March 30 in Washington, DC. More information is available at dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org.
Fifty percent of U.S. farmers are approaching retirement age. They can mentor the next generation, a skill that is also sorely needed. Veterans can comprise their replacements, as can college graduates forced down from the ivory tower into burger flipping. Farming offers the opposite of fast food: wholesome nourishment. One million new farmers are needed in the next ten years.
And where will the land to farm come from, besides current farmers if somehow they can transmit their legacy to the vets, most of whom can't afford to purchase huge amounts of real estate? Colleman Ruiz, a part-time farmer who grows all of his own produce, found 6-1/2 acres of affordable land south of Annapolis, Maryland. The Bureau of Land Management, through the 2014 Farm Bill, has appropriated one percent of its vast land holdings for farming. It holds 3.3 million acres of land in the far West, mostly desert land that has been proved arable, as mentioned above. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will lend farmland to returning veterans with three years of relevant experience.
A new venue for farming has become city locations, including Detroit, where defunct factory land is being cultivated. This offers another alternative to those without funding for more conventional venues. Many churches occupy land that might also be cultivated by the public.
As to the military budget, a grand total of one percent is allocated to veteran-related issues. Vets can wait up to eighteen months to receive benefits even if they come home with PTSD. One out of four are ignored because of administrative errors.
As far as threats to this thriving new venue of employment, Monsanto won't go after veteran-famers, said Delanie. Why? They will fight back. They've had ample experience and have brought back these skills many don't know what to do with afterward.
An insightful panel discussion was held after the screening of Ground Operations. Participants included Delanie Ellis; Elizabeth Kucinich, Policy Director, the Center for Food Safety; Calvin Riggs, farmer-veteran and owner of Bigg Rigs Farm; Colleman Ruiz, part-time farmer also employed full-time away from the land; and Ethne Clark, editor of Organic Gardening magazine.
At the close of the event, a veteran in the audience stood up to propose that the dedicated activists presenting today deserved a Congressional Medal of Honor for their most valuable contributions to the environmentalist movement.
For more on this valuable film and its already remarkable reception and impact, see Meryl Ann Butler's wonderful interview of Dulanie, From Battlefields to Fields of Dreams: Vets Cultivate Healing on the Farm, here.