Veterans Thrive with Organic Program at Rodale

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From a plot of land in rural Pennsylvania, an organic agriculture nonprofit is reaching out to improve soil across the world, and Veterans are a key part of doing that.

Rodale Institute, now in its seventh decade of leading the regenerative organic agriculture movement from its farm outside of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, knows that Veterans can harness their particular skills and gifts to make a difference.

“Many Veterans have the ‘grit’ that is necessary to be successful farmers with their ability to adapt and overcome challenges,” said Justin Barclay, global education operations manager. Barclay himself is an Army Veteran (served 2000-05, 2007-08) who has been at Rodale for 6½ years.

Rodale is one of Farmer Veteran Coalition’s partners through the AgVets program. Rodale offers a comprehensive nine-month program that encompasses an entire growing season.

It also offers a program specific to Veterans.

“After leaving the service, Veterans want a new mission with an important purpose, and growing food for their local communities while healing the soil accomplishes this,” he said.

That was precisely the reason that drew Warlinda Walker to Rodale.

The San Francisco resident and Air Force veteran, who served six years and got out in 1994, has a mission in the Philippines to help people as well as land.

“I looked for this particular program,” she said. “It’s very competitive. I wanted to learn how to care for the soil we have in the Philippines. (The farming there is) very conventional. I have acres of land, but the soil is chemically crusted, so we need to enliven the microorganisms already in the soil.”

She appreciates Rodale’s mantra of “Healthy soil. Healthy plant. Healthy people. Healthy climate.”

“I want to follow this spectrum,” Walker said. “I truly believe in that. I want to follow this model and replicate it in the Philippines.”

She and her husband, who also is a Veteran, work with homeless people in the (San Francisco) Bay Area where they live.

“This would be an important model for them,” she said. “My goal is to learn, to actually use what I learn, and to share it with the rest of the world, especially for the Veterans.”

Finding Purpose

For Nick Henry, being in the Rodale program has been part of his journey to find purpose in his life.

“The regenerative organic movement has provided me that opportunity,” said the Ohio Air National Guard Veteran, who served six years until discharging in 2013.

“I have learned about the relationship with food production and how that can transform someone from the inside out,” he said. “Having that connection to growing healthy food and caring for the soil, and trying to bring healing to the planet through the process of growing food has been astronomically good for my well-being.”

He wants to focus on small farms, but is interested in urban agriculture as well as consulting and engaging with other people to collaborate on projects.

“It’s a noble occupation and you can really feel it from the sense of serving the way you did when you joined the military,” Henry said.

Working at Rodale

Navy cryptologist Sam Geesaman liked his experience so much last year at Rodale, that he’s now part of the team.

Geesaman, who served 2002-07, graduated in November from the program and was hired full time by Rodale as its perennial systems technician.

“I get to work in the orchards and build my experience for my future business,” he said. “I really want to start a non-profit.”

He’s had a concept for five years called Veterans Healing Forests. The nonprofit would propagate trees and then ship them to disaster areas following floods or fires, or even to fill a community food forest.

He envisions holding a community event with Veterans and planting the trees together.

“You could do this anywhere across the country or the world and get good genetics going in those specific areas that need it,” he explained.

Much like Nick Henry, Gessaman said he felt he needed a change in his life.

“Ten years after my military experience, I realized I didn’t fit very well sitting in an IT world, in a basement at a computer,” he said. “I was kind of losing that purpose in life, and I tried to start my own small farm in Colorado.

“It went really well. Got all the motivation I needed, but I realized I needed a lot of help on the business-end aspect of it. Rodale has this Veteran Farmer program that will teach you a lot about the business side of things, and it kind of gets you jump-started into the world you’re going into. And it was just amazing; the whole experience.”

Sticking Around

That’s similar to the story Air Force Veteran Julia Boughton shares.

Boughton, who grew up in that part of Pennsylvania, but served all over during her 24 years in the Air Force, came to Rodale on the Department of Defense’s Skillbridge program last year and transitioned out of the Air Force.

“Not only are they focused on regenerative, organic agriculture, something I am interested in learning a lot about, they also had a Veteran Farmer training program, specifically bringing in Veterans,” she explained “I thought that would be an excellent path for me getting out of the Air Force.”

While she didn’t have a background in agriculture, that didn’t matter.

“They were able to take someone with zero knowledge and instill a real love for growing food and a baseline for where to start,” she said. “And that’s everything from preparing your soil and building up your soil health so you’ll actually get good, quality food, to seeding in the greenhouse so that you have plants to put in the ground.

“And then transplanting, fertilizing … cover cropping is a really big one, harvest, and how to actually get your food out to the people that need it and want it, and how to be a productive member of your community.”

Boughton wants to own a business and run a small farm. She’s already applied for an LLC and is leasing a tiny plot of land in Colorado, she said, hoping to start a market garden.

Like Rodale’s Barclay, Boughton believes Veterans are especially well suited to working in agriculture.

“I think Veterans are the perfect solution to America’s problem of not having enough farmers,” she said. “Veterans really have this great idea of what it means to serve, and also to be disciplined enough to become a farmer and to get into agriculture.

“I think Veterans have a really great perspective on how to start a project and see it through.”

To learn more about Rodale Institute, visit their website here: You can also follow them on Facebook here: