Photo by Joshua Lindau
Growing Warriors founder Mike Lewis
Fred-Curtis Lewis was on his seventh or eighth Afghanistan tour as a combat medic with the 9th Special Forces group when he was shot in the back of the head by a sniper. He survived, but like many veterans, came home with no benefits. And he had a debilitating brain injury. Fred-Curtis, his wife and their three children lost everything. The family ended up moving in with Fred-Curtis’ brother, Mike, and his wife, Melinda. Although Fred-Curtis continued his rehabilitation, Mike says the massive head injury changed his brother.
“It was very different dealing with him,” says Mike. “One day he came down to the garden with me and for those 40 minutes, he was my little brother. Then we went back for dinner and he was that guy I didn’t know.”
This continued for weeks—the trip to the garden, the change when Fred-Curtis got close to the earth. Mike says there was a gradual “carryover” of what Fred-Curtis felt at the garden into every other aspect of his life. “It helped with his sense of purpose.”
If his brother’s need had been met with the promise of a growing garden, what could this mean in terms of hope and help for other veterans?
A little research led Mike to the California-based Farmer Veteran Coalition. “After two weeks of talking to them, they put us on a plane to Pennsylvania and we attended a three-day agricultural education workshop with about 12 other farmer veterans. Those were three of the most profound days I have ever seen,” Mike says.
Mike and Fred-Curtis tucked those seeds of learning into their pockets and brought them back to the Bluegrass.
Seeds of Hope
Mike Lewis was born and raised in a small logging community in Maine. His family lived on his grandfather’s remote subsistence farm. “We raised a hog; we killed a cow or two; we grew a garden. That was how we ate,” Lewis says. “My grandfather would go away for a week or two to go logging, and that was the money for the year. When I was 8, they paved our road and standardized our school systems. The first day I got off the school bus was the day I realized we were poor.”
In 1992, just two days before his 17th birthday, Mike Lewis enlisted with the U.S. Army. Stationed at Arlington National Cemetery and serving in the Honor Guard, he participated in more than 200 funerals for service men and women. After five years, Lewis was honorably discharged and entered the financial services field. He eventually started his own company but in 2006, his parents retired to a Kentucky farm and it wasn’t long before Lewis sold his company and searched for a new adventure.
“Working in the financial services company, it brought me back to being a kid and wanting to be rich. I finally realized what that meant and decided I wouldn’t participate in that anymore,” Lewis says. “I came to visit my parents, met my wife at a New Year’s Eve party, and never made it back out of Kentucky.”
In 2007, Lewis accepted an eight-month internship at an organic farm in Boyle County, where he “learned the impact that a farm can have on a community and how people can coalesce around food.” From there, he became the farm production manager for Chestnut Ridge Farm in Rockcastle County.
In 2011, Lewis and his wife, Melinda, ventured out on their own and picked up land leases to begin a farming operation. “Our farming is split between almost 40 acres in Madison County, where we produce vegetables, and 120 acres on a family farm in Rockcastle, which supports livestock,” Lewis says. “Currently, we work with about 800 growers who produce and then we sell online. The operation is called Gaining Ground Farm because we just keep picking up land leases.”
While working at Chestnut Ridge, Lewis also gained an interest in agricultural advocacy. He speaks to groups, is involved in lobbying, has met with the Farm Service Agency about farm-finance issues and has testified before both the state and U.S. Senates about agricultural issues.
“I say that supporting agricultural investment is supporting economic development and we can effect a lot of the change we feel like we need as a society by supporting farmers and starting the call in that direction,” he says.
“I know that with veterans, one of the reasons they get into the military is that it will be hard work. The hours will be long, there are sometimes grueling conditions, but they sign up for that. The same attitude is conducive to farming,” says veteran Paul Dengel. “We get up early. We work hard. But I find a sense of serenity, a peace of mind, with farming.”
A Wisconsin transplant, Dengel and his family moved to a 90-acre hobby farm in Green County when he was 9. He graduated from Green County High School in 2004 and went to college for a year and a half before enlisting in the Air Force in 2006. He worked as a loadmaster on C17s (a transport aircraft) and flew into Iraq and Afghanistan at least monthly on air support missions.
He was honorably discharged in 2010 and decided to go back to college at the University of Kentucky to study sustainable agriculture. “I had an idea I could get into the health profession. I liked the idea of helping people, but I didn’t like the idea of being in that environment,” Dengel says. “The more I thought about agriculture, the more it made sense to me. I find there are few things in this world that make sense.”
Dengel works at the UK horticulture research farm in Lexington. He assists research analysts, works hands-on with the growing process and does any handiwork needed. It’s this willingness to work in any capacity that made Dengel an ideal candidate for the Growing Warriors program.
Because of his previous advocacy work and involvement with Grow Appalachia—a program founded by veteran and Paul Mitchell hair products founder John Paul DeJoria and designed to help Appalachian farmers with sustainable agriculture—Mike Lewis secured a $30,000 grant from Grow Appalachia to begin the Growing Warriors program.
Since then, Growing Warriors has started eight community gardens across the state, established two training programs for unemployed veterans, established a community supported agriculture program (with pick-up locations in Berea, Richmond and Lexington) and helped connect farmer veterans with grant options through state and federal agencies. The training programs provide veterans a stipend for working in the community gardens that, in turn, produce food for homeless shelters or food pantries. The grant options include funding for farm equipment and facilities such as high-tunnel greenhouses.
One example of community gardens, Lewis says, is found at St. Vincent Mission in Prestonsburg. “They called us and said they had unemployed veterans running around the garden, helping them out. They wanted to know what we could do. We put together the funds, doubled their production space, hired a local veteran farmer and paid him a stipend to oversee those unemployed veterans who worked in that garden.”
Growing Warriors community gardens are located in Bowling Green, Rockcastle County, at the Veterans Affairs Clinic in Berea, at East Mill Gardens in Lexington, and in Prestonsburg. Lewis says there is a garden slated for Madisonville. Two additional gardens have been started in North Carolina, where Lewis’ brother, Fred-Curtis, has propagated the opportunity beyond Kentucky borders.
Joseph Fields is the type of man who is used to wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. In his Berea garden, however, he lays down his weapon and plunges his hands into the earth that helps to support him, his wife, Heather, and their growing family.
Fields is a farmer veteran. A member of the Kentucky National Guard since December 2000, he was deployed twice with a Louisville unit and once with a Richmond unit, spending almost three years of his nine-year service in Iraq. A military policeman, Fields worked route and convoy security, provided close and personal protection, and helped to train at least 700 Iraqi correction officers.
Fields survived an IED (improvised explosive device) attack, lost partial vision, suffered a traumatic brain injury and fractured his spine in two places. “It was a wild ride,” he says. “I had a lot of apprehension the last time when I came back because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to work or to maintain a full-time job.”
Despite those uncertainties, Fields pressed on. While on leave during his last tour, he and Heather visited a farm for sale and they fell in love with the land. Fields returned to Iraq, Heather worked out the details of the sale, and by the time they were reunited, their new farm was waiting to help them with a fresh start.
“I grew up around a ridiculous amount of strawberries on my family farm. When we had too much, we gave it away to family members and neighbors,” Fields says. “I guess you can’t get too far away from your childhood.”
Fields started growing flowers for baskets in time for Mother’s Day. “We really missed the mark that first time,” Fields says with a laugh.
Then he met Mike Lewis at the Berea Farmers Market.
Fields went through the 12-month Growing Warriors program, attended classes and meetings, and this past spring built a greenhouse to help extend and control the growing season.
“At last count, we have almost 40 varieties of edible things we are growing on the property,” Fields says. “We have all kinds of annuals and perennials, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grass-fed lambs and 900 strawberry plants. It’s amazing how much me and my dad have in common now.”
Fields also is giving back to other veterans. He and Heather purchased additional roadside acreage, where they plan to offer a handicapped-accessible garden.
“I find myself, oftentimes, not relating well with a lot of civilians. I have been institutionalized. I know that I deal well with farming and with other veterans,” Fields explains. “People say they are hungry for this information and I give them farm tours and I want to help out my fellow veterans.”
Michael Kenealy, another transplant to Kentucky, has a job lined up with the Growing Warriors program when he graduates next May from Berea College. He enlisted with the U.S. Army National Guard in 2003 and served in Iraq, working as a fueler for convoys and generators. He completed his contract in May 2009 and is on reserve status.
Kenealy also met Mike Lewis at the Berea Farmers Market while he was helping to sell college-grown produce. The two struck up a conversation, discovered common ground, and planned ways to use their experience to help other veterans. “I am super-excited about the program [Growing Warriors]. It is going to do a lot of good for the veterans and for the communities,” Kenealy says. “It’s the whole package. It’s perfect for Kentucky.”
Growing Warriors began in 2012. James Comer had just taken office as commissioner of agriculture. “The commissioner has always had an interest in helping our military veterans in whatever way possible,” says Ben Shaffar, director of business development for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s marketing office.
Shaffar explains that during Comer’s first year in office, the unemployment rate for U.S. veterans aged 18 to 25 was nearly 30 percent. In addition, the average age of the Kentucky farmer is 57. Shaffar says Comer saw two new opportunities: to give back to those who have served by addressing immediate job needs, and to spur a new generation of farmers.
On Jan. 22, 2013, Comer announced the launch of two initiatives that, Shaffar says, had been germinating and waiting for the right time to push through to the light.
“Kentucky Proud Jobs for Vets and Homegrown by Heroes enable Kentucky veterans to pursue careers in agriculture,” Comer said in the January news conference. “With these programs, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture is doing its part for those men and women who have already done their part to protect our great nation.”
Shaffar says the initiatives can be thought of in three basic “tiers.” The first tier is to identify veterans who need work and to team them up with Kentucky Proud members. The second tier brings in Growing Warriors and the Farmer Veteran Coalition to help train and mentor veterans to become farmers.
The third tier helps with the marketing of what veteran farmers have produced. “Homegrown by Heroes is an offshoot version of our Kentucky Proud brand that helps denote farm product that was produced in Kentucky specifically by veterans,” Shaffar says. “What we hope this brand will do is give some visibility to the quality products that our military veterans are growing, raising and value-adding, and it also gives the consumer an opportunity to support that veteran and thank them for their service.” Military veteran producers or processors can use the Homegrown by Heroes logo on their product labeling at places such as local farmers markets, grocery stores and roadside stands.
The Homegrown by Heroes initiative may go nationwide, perhaps by the end of this year. Other states—including Louisiana, California, Iowa, Connecticut and West Virginia—have expressed interest in a national partnership where the Homegrown by Heroes label will be used (minus the Kentucky Proud denotation, as each state will want to use its own agricultural tag). “We hope that 30 or 40 years from now, when people see the Homegrown by Heroes brand, people will know that is something that was grown by our military veterans,” Shaffar says, “whether that logo is sitting on a shelf in Washington State or Washington, D.C.”
Shaffar and Lewis say that although the programs are new, they are experiencing unforeseen growth and interest that all parties are adjusting to as they go along. The second tier of the initiative—getting the veterans connected to the garden—has experienced the most growth. To date, more than 40 veterans and their families have benefited from classes, training and the dirt under their fingernails that is a badge of honor for any Kentucky farmer.
Larry King, a McCreary County native, is one of the more seasoned veterans involved with Growing Warriors and Homegrown by Heroes. King served as a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force from 1974 to 1980. During his service, he aided with evacuation missions out of Saigon and worldwide deployments. King was not wounded in battle, but re-entered civilian life at a time when there were few organizations set up to help veterans. “There was no support,” he says. “It was really a rough adjustment because the VA was in really bad shape.”
King went back to school, earning an associate degree in human services from Somerset Community College and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of the Cumberlands. He secured a job doing counseling at the Pine Knot Civilian Conservation Corps and retired from the U.S. Forest Service in March 2012.
“I started developing the homestead where I grew up a few years before I retired. I was thinking about veterans, about a training program hosting four or five veterans at a time on the homestead,” he says. “Someone mentioned Mike Lewis and we talked and have been working those same ideas along that line.”
King’s homestead production recently erected a high-tunnel greenhouse to increase the variety of produce he can offer, and he also grows grapes, raspberries and blueberries. He sells locally but believes with the support of Homegrown by Heroes and Growing Warriors, he will increase not only his yield but also his income.
Eventually, he hopes to open the homestead to other veterans. “To really make it work, you need to be doing it,” King says. “Veterans can see what a working homestead looks like, try it out, work on it, and actually see if that is the direction they want to go”
King sees an added value to the veteran farming venture, a value that directly relates to his counseling background. “There is a real therapeutic part of just being in the natural atmosphere like that, in this rural setting. It’s just good for you. It’s a good place to transition, to wind down and get back in touch with what’s really going on. It gives you a really good place to heal.”