It’s a pleasant 70 degrees, and neat rows of snap peas, kale and broccoli spring from the soft loam of the Skagit Valley. Christopher Brown squats among the garlic and grasps a stalk. He tugs it from the ground with a satisfying crunch and peels back the papery protective layers, revealing a brilliant white bulb.
Brown, ’16, a Marine combat veteran, works alongside men and women veterans from all military branches. With them in mind, he co-founded Growing Veterans, a nonprofit farm that grows produce for farmers markets and food banks. The satisfying work comes with a deeper mission: helping war veterans reconnect with each other and their communities.
Veterans greet each other every morning with hugs and share stories from their time in the military. They talk politics. Medications. Family. Civilian life. Brown’s own experience led to this. In 2008, he returned from his final tour of duty and struggled to adjust. “There was a lot of guilt, grief, anger, frustration and anxiety,” he says. He also had to cope with a brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Along with PTSD, returning veterans face depression, isolation, substance abuse, unemployment, homelessness and suicidal thoughts. Brown’s Marine battalion, the 2/7, has a suicide rate four times that of all young male veterans.
“When I went back to get my undergraduate degree,” says Brown, “I made a commitment to myself that I would pursue an education and a career where those losses would not be in vain.” Brown also worked on his own mental health. Following the advice of his therapist, he started growing vegetables. “I realized that there really is something to working with food and growing plants,” he says. Just before entering graduate school at the UW, it clicked: Why not combine food and farming with helping veterans?
Four years ago he and Christina Wolf, an organic farmer and former counselor, started Growing Veterans on a 3.5-acre site north of Bellingham. The Bob Woodruff Foundation, which supports programs for injured veterans, and the J.M. Kaplan Fund provided grants. The farm has since expanded to the 40-acre property in Skagit Valley and a half-acre in Auburn.
Brown, who completed his master’s in social work in June, and Wolf have also deepened their organization’s focus on mental health; the farm’s nine employees are trained in suicide intervention.
There’s plenty of excitement cropping up for the nonprofit. More veterans like Joel Swenson, a former Army combat medic, are on their journey to healing. Tending a plant from seedling to harvest and then selling it to veterans and employees at the VA hospital, says Swenson, “is really kind of a special experience.”