Veterans Farm – Where hope and support grow

Adam Burke found out that blueberries are good for you in more ways than one.

After returning home from deployments in Iraq with multiple wounds of war, the Purple Heart recipient established Veterans Farm in 2010 in Jacksonville as a handicap-accessible farm for disabled combat veterans.

Through farming and returning to his roots (his parents are blueberry growers), Burke was able to overcome his injuries. That’s when he decided to give back to fellow disabled veterans by establishing a horticulture therapy program on his farm. Starting with just 2.8 acres, the farm has grown to more than 19 acres.

“I started the farm from scratch. In the beginning we’d go to nurseries that had shut down and recycle any containers, pots, irrigation and ground cover we could find,” Burke said. “We had no money, no sponsors and not much support in the beginning — only a vision of what could be. John Niekrash, the founder of a program called Work Vessels for Veterans, was the one man who believed in me and my vision. His organization started raising funds for us to expand and build. If not for him, the Veterans Farm wouldn’t be where it is today,” Burke said. Learn more about Work Vessels for Veterans here.

Veterans Farm is the perfect setting for combat war veterans, providing a “prescription without medication,” Burke says, through horticulture therapy, which helps veterans to heal while learning new skills that allow them to transition into the civilian sector as beginning farmers.

Veterans Farms’ approach is holistic in nature. Healing and successful transition for veterans includes support from their spouses and families, who are encouraged to participate during its “Family/Friends Day” activities.

The farm’s aim is threefold — to train veterans for a viable career in farming, to offer veterans a strong support and mentoring system, and to provide the resources they will need to start agriculture ventures.

The farm continues to evolve. “Until July 2011, we trained vets in ag, but under a different training module and program that consisted of more horticulture therapy. That was called the Veterans Farm Fellowship program,” Burke said.

In 2011, Burke started the New Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program. “As we grow, we learn new things. At first we started with a six-month program, and we learned over time how to improve that to a three-month program. It was more concentrated and intense, but we were able to get these guys trained and ready to start farming, working and managing a local farm within that time frame,” he said.

Since its inception, the program has trained vets for mainly agriculture and agriculture-related occupations. “We’d recruit them, do a background check, sign them up and get started. Mentors would teach them how to run the daily operations. Then we’d get into more details of blueberry production, harvesting, selling and marketing the berries (sold as Red, White and Blueberries,)” plus other fruits and vegetables, Burke said.

The operation includes greenhouse production, where vets can learn how to grow herbs and sell them to restaurants and grocery stores. “We’ve also worked with cattle, goats — you name it,” Burke said. “We nurture their interests and challenge their weaknesses.”

The farm has hosted vets from as far away as California, usually in groups of four to seven.  And sometimes they stay longer than three months. Burke named several special cases, including a young veteran who almost drowned after being attacked by muggers while fishing. His wife was forced to leave her job to take care of him, their money ran out, and they found themselves homeless.  The two were given a second chance after Burke learned about their situation. He offered them a place in the program, where they remained for an entire year before they were ready to put their lives back together. Veterans Farm helped them find a house, furniture, tractors, trucks and equipment so that today they’re back on their feet and farming.

President Obama honored Adam Burke, Veterans Farm founder, with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2013.

Burke is the humble recipient of several honors and awards in addition to the Purple Heart. He received the Good Person of the Year award from the Good People Foundation in 2013, a Community Service award by 5-Hour Energy in 2012, the Star of Honor from Work Vessels for Veterans 2011 and the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Obama in 2013. “Being awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, for me, it’s as part of a team and a community, because it’s the community that brought us to this point.  All the hard work, commitment and ‘never quit’ attitude are really what’s being recognized with this award. I’m so proud of everyone,” he said of the honor. See a video of the interview Burke gave at the White House here.

Today, Burke says the program is expanding its outreach with the help of a federal grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.  One of these outreach efforts is a series of workshops, the first of which will be held March 7 at 16163 Lem Turner Road, Jacksonville, from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Veterans and those in active duty can register at www.farm-workshop.eventbrite.com

“We’re inviting people from USDA’s Farm Service Agency, University of Florida experts and others to come in and present information that is directly related to veterans, active duty military and small, beginning farmers. One of the problems we’ve seen is that when you try to navigate the federal system to find resources, there is just a flood of information. It’s almost impossible to navigate and figure out what grant is right for you and how to apply, and many times people give up. Our new partnership with NIFA will help new beginning veteran farmers overcome these barriers. We’ve invited speakers who will show them how to get the right funding, how to find land to lease and a lot more,” Burke said. See the schedule and read more about the workshop on the Veterans Farm website or at www.farm-workshop.eventbrite.com

He also has started a hosting fellowship program that pairs farmers up with veterans. “Over the past five years we’ve been training people at our local farm in Jacksonville. But now, as we’ve expanded into a national organization, we’re qualifying host sites where we send veterans to work on partner farms to mentor under the farmers,” Burke said. “The farmer would be required to make sure the veterans are receiving the correct training and the veteran would be required to work and train 20 hours a week for three months. We pay for their housing stipend each month.”

Thanks to the grant and community support, Veterans Farm will be awarding 40 scholarships and 20 fellowships this year. They can be used by beginning veteran farmers or ranchers to help cover agriculture training and educational costs.  Those interested may apply at the March 7 workshop.

“What we like to see after veterans complete the program is for them to either find employment with large farming organizations or for them to start their own farm,” Burke said. “Or they can go into another type of business — it doesn’t have to be agriculture. Our big focus is on giving them the structure they need to be successful. We teach them about business planning, marketing and more, which they can apply in any business,” he said.

If you’d like to make a donation to Veterans Farm, click here to learn more.  If your organization would like to partner with Veterans Farm, send an email to information@ffva.com and it will be forwarded to Burke’s team.

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