Two red-tailed hawks screech and circle overhead in a crystal blue sky at Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms nestled along the banks of Deer Creek in southern Jefferson County. Royce Hale, Farm Education Coordinator, leads me on a tour of the market garden and past plum bushes to the veteran garden, a plot of land that started out as a blank space in May and was recently harvested in October. For five months, nine veterans worked together to decide what to plant, where to plant it and how much of each type of vegetable, including the three sisters (corn, beans and squash) that can be stored for year-round consumption.
In addition to team building, participants in the Veterans to Farmers market farming program learn to grow vegetables, take care of themselves, and take care of the land. Soil and plant diversity and soil health are part of the hands-on curriculum. Botany, entomology and how to build drip irrigation are also taught.
“This is a very niche experience,” Royce explains. “Nothing else is full-season farming and it takes 20 to 21 weeks to get the full arc of the seasons.”
Royce just finished his fourth season teaching. With a background in education, Royce is a veteran and has operated his own Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share program and still grows a variety of produce. Although Royce was a student himself, he didn’t sign up for the program when he first heard about it.
“I had it in my head that it was for veterans that needed help,” he says. “When I got out of the Navy in 1997, I left it all behind me and didn’t talk about it. I realized the (veteran) community is something I missed,” Royce admits. “I’ve embraced being a veteran. Being out here and having your hands in the dirt is therapeutic.”
All branches of the military are represented, including the Reserves and Coast Guard, and ages vary from those that have just gotten out of the service after four years to one in their late 70s that served at the tail end of the Korean War. “Experience ranges from veterans that have never put a seed in the ground to veterans like myself that have a farm or land and are working it,” Royce says.
There are no therapists on staff, yet connections and healing are nurtured and grow right alongside the plants the veterans tend. Co-teacher Catharine McCord focuses on self-care. The group checks in every morning to see how everyone is doing and then again throughout the day to make sure everyone is staying hydrated. “A lot of veterans are food insecure,” Royce explains, “either because they don’t want to go to the store or because they have a lack of self-worth and don’t want to make meals for themselves.”
The veterans take home any produce that is harvested and get a CSA share every week. “We do a lot chopping and tasting,” Royce says. Chefs come in to teach food preparation, basic knife skills and how to make easy recipes, such as stir fry, where several types of produce can be incorporated.
What is most rewarding about teaching the veterans? “What we are doing right now,” Royce responds. “They work to plan it out, have faith to put seeds in the ground, get excited when the seedlings pop up and continue to grow, and then taste the fruits of their labor. The big thing that comes out of it is a community of veterans all interested in farming.”