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comfort through farming

Finding Comfort Through Farming

Veterans find work and purpose at this Georgia farm
Adina Solomon

Jon Jackson needed help—and he needed it urgently.

A veteran who did six combat tours, Jon approached the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in 2013, a year after returning from his last tour, seeking urgent mental health services. “I was in a crisis, and they wanted to see me in six weeks,” he says. “I didn’t have six minutes.”

“I’m a 100 percent disabled vet—PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), traumatic brain injury—just looking for help and they couldn’t give me help,” Jon says. “Instead of feeling sorry about it, I just decided to do something about it.”

That something was starting a nonprofit where veterans can work on their mental health through farming. In 2014, Jon founded Strength to Achieve Greatness (STAG) Vets. Two years later, STAG Vets built its first program at Comfort Farms in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Healing Through Planting

On a humid day in June, Jon walks to the back of a long hoop house at Comfort Farms, the steamy air just about sticking to his sun-faded baseball cap. As he waters the plants around him—heirloom squash, tomatoes, and collard greens—he explains that he’s originally from Jersey City, New Jersey, and didn’t grow up with agriculture. He came to Georgia in 2004 for the U.S. Army, serving his combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was medically retired in 2015 due to injuries sustained at war and then stayed in Georgia.

After his experience with the VA, Jon wanted a way to work on his mental health while doing something physical and purpose-driven. Enter farming. Not only does it fulfill those requirements, but it also involves working with a community.

“It’s just a huge motivator to come in here and to work and to get things done for something bigger than yourself,” he says.

Comfort Farms is a 20-acre farm, community hub, and mental health center all in one. Veterans, mostly from Georgia but some from other states, come to work as volunteers on the farm. It provides physical, goal-oriented work, such as taking care of piglets and planting seeds, while allowing them to talk with fellow veterans about their lives and issues.

After all, it’s easier to talk about experiences when you’re focused on a physical activity like shoveling rabbit manure.

“You’re not trying to be so guarded because you’re more focused on the task at hand and you’re just almost rambling about stuff,” says Shawn Wilding, a veteran who lives in Warner Robins, Georgia.

Shawn, who is pursuing a master’s degree to become a psychotherapist and licensed counselor, drives 50 minutes to work at Comfort Farms with his wife at least once every other week.

“You finish at the end of the day, you’re a little sore, but mentally just energized,” he says.

“It’s just a huge motivator to come [to the farm] to work and to get things done for something bigger than yourself.”

–Jon Jackson, founder of STAG Vets

Taking Care

After Jon finishes watering the vegetables, he exits the hoop house, grabbing a cucumber growing on a vine along the way. He rinses it off with the hose and takes a loud, crunchy bite out of it. It’s hot out, and Jon needs to keep hydrated.

Here, veterans work on taking care of themselves. Some come to the farm every day, Jon says. Others come once a week or month. Veterans decide how often they want to come, so the number of people on the farm fluctuates day to day.

“This place is just really set up as a way for vets to […] press pause on their daily life, come out and do something so that they can go back to handling the stuff that they need to with less stress and […] in a better headspace,” Jon says.

Veterans often come to Comfort Farms with their family members. Jon’s 5-year-old daughter Kaitlyn, who came to the farm that day, hangs around him as he eats his cucumber. He has six kids and stepchildren in all, ranging from 2 to 20 years old. His wife Bri is working on the farm today, too.

Stephanie Jett, assistant professor of psychology at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, first got involved with Comfort Farms because of her boyfriend, an U.S. Air Force veteran. Now, she serves as secretary of STAG Vets, mainly focusing on making Comfort Farms an official mental health treatment facility. If the farm gets recognized by an organization such as the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, the VA could more easily refer veterans to the nonprofit.

Stephanie is also undertaking a program evaluation to qualify how Comfort Farms is effective in helping treat veterans with traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and other mental health conditions resulting from or exacerbated by combat.

“You’re out here learning about agriculture, learning about the culinary industry if that’s your thing,” Stephanie says. “But in the same time, you’re getting interpersonal skills. You’re learning about empathy. You’re talking about communication. You’re getting all these other little skills.”

“This place is just really set up as a way for vets to … press pause on their daily life, come out and do something so that they can go back to handling the stuff that they need to with less stress.”

–Jon Jackson

Seeds For The Future

It’s Friday, the day before Comfort Farms’ twice-a-month farmers market, so the farm is full of veterans and their families scrambling to get ready. In addition to the produce, Comfort Farms sells beef, pork, and rabbit. Everything but the beef is raised on the farm.

While STAG Vets occasionally receives donations, selling products is STAG Vets’ main source of funding, making these market days vital. During winter months, when the farm work lessens, Comfort Farms hosts festivals and farm-to-table events.

Jon says with more funding, STAG Vets could do more to help veterans.

“We’re just doing what we can right now,” he says.

But he has plans for the future. Jon wants to turn a warehouse at the farm into an agro-culinary school that trains veterans on growing and cooking. He also envisions expanding to five more farms for veterans across Georgia, each focusing on different products.

For now, while STAG Vets and Comfort Farms may just be at the beginning of their journey, they’re already making an impact on the lives of veterans like Shawn.

“You’re planting seeds, effectively creating life, knowing that it’s going to go to a good use,” Shawn says. “You’ve seen so much death and destruction, it’s nice to actually recreate [life], so to speak, through the seeds, something as simple as plants, watching them grow […] and knowing that it’s just going to have such an impact down the road. There’s something rewarding about it.”

Want to learn more about STAG Vets and Comfort Farms? Visit the organization’s website: stagvetsinc.org.

Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist in Atlanta with bylines in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and Next City.