Whatcom County farm reintegrates veterans to civilian life through agriculture

LYNDEN, Wash. -- Located about nine miles south of the Canadian border, in Whatcom County, food is being grown. But perhaps more importantly, lives are being changed.

“I’m still trying to figure out how to be a veteran and not a military member,” said Jered Bocek, a Marine Corps veteran from Bellingham. “This is just being able to talk to other people about the experiences you’ve gone through or just what you`re dealing with.”

Many people don’t necessarily associate veterans and agriculture, but for one farm in Whatcom County, that’s exactly what they do. The farm, located in Lynden, is called Growing Veterans. It gives veterans an outlet to speak their mind as they reintegrate into civilian life.

Bocek said he enlisted in the Marine’s in 2012, right after graduating from high school. He left the Marine Corps just last year. Nine months after he joined, he said the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi happened and there was a big push by the military to bolster security at embassies all over the world, he said. For Bocek, he was stationed at embassies in  Buenos Aires, Monrovia and China.

But when Bocek got back to the U.S., adjusting to civilian life was difficult.

“Living here, I have a lot of friends and everything, but I don’t have anything veteran-related,” he said.

After the military, Bocek started attending classes at a nearby college, and that’s when members of Growing Veterans showed up on campus.

“You know I’ve got the summer off, might as well start volunteering out here and just fell in love with it,” he said.

Bocek goes to Growing Veterans four days a week now. Not only is he learning all about agriculture, but he’s also learning from other veterans. The camaraderie he sought was here.

“We kind of just go over the plan for the week, objectives that we have, plans that we have, little critiquing that we need to make, and then it`s just, we`re on,” he said.

Growing Veterans is a working farm. Among the food that’s grown include kale, broccoli, hops, lettuce, tomatoes, honey, and garlic. The farm used to be owned and operated by the Bellingham Food Bank. But in 2013, a Marine Corps veteran, Christopher Brown and a former mental health counselor-turned-farmer Christina Wolf, had an idea: Use the farm to foster human connection and veteran reintegration.

In 2015, Growing Veterans became a non-profit and certified organic farm.

But beyond the food, this was a place where veterans can speak openly about their service or their struggles in life.

“Yeah, it’s very therapeutic. I can’t explain what happens here, but we call it dirt therapy,” said Michael Hackett, a Vietnam war veteran.

Hackett has been with the program since it started five years ago. He said he has a background in agriculture though his education at Washington State University. But for him, the farm gives him an opportunity to help the younger vets.

“I tell them, I’m 72, I’m clean and sober, I’m happy you can be that way too,” he said. “Like any group of people who have had similar traumatic experiences, that’s all we are.  A group who’s had similar experiences.”

Along with farming, Growing Veterans also offers peer support groups, which tackle the cycles of PTSD or transition stress.

“In the middle of these projects, we’re working together, we’re talking to each other. And eventually, stuff comes out. People are able to open up more,” said Joel Swenson, farm manager.

Swenson was a combat medic for the Army before coming to Growing Veterans. He had been deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, he said. He served active duty for four years.

But for him, he said after serving, he resorted to drinking. Before coming to Growing Veterans he had no previous farming experience.

“When I took over as the farm manager, I quit drinking. It’s been almost two years,” he said. “I’m here to help them out with whether they want to stop drinking or not, but more so just trying to lead them to a better path.”

Growing Veterans is also about breaking barriers between civilians and veterans along with reintegration. Many civilians volunteer at the farm.

“Working together to grow things, the food and each other. It just breaks down those barriers naturally,” said Michael Frazier, Growing Veterans executive director.

Many who have gone through the program have transitioned into agriculture or other ventures. For Bocek, however, this is where he hopes to figure it out.

“This could lead to something greater than this or it’s just a cherished memory,” said Bocek.

Growing Veterans has a food stand nearby where they sell much of what they grow. According to Swenson, they also have partnerships with Semiahmoo Resort, and Aslan Brewing has agreed to use their hops for beer. Anything that is left over is donated to the Bellingham Food Bank, said Swenson.

Growing Veterans is currently looking for veterans, volunteers and donations. For more information, click here.