“Can I tell you about some things that I’ve never told anybody about?” a voice on the other end of the line asks Melissa Stewart in the early hours of the morning. Though it’s happened time and again, she still marvels, “I’ve earned their trust; we’ve been on this road together since 2014. That opens them up to text me in the middle of the night, saying, ‘I’m having a rough time.’” The texts are from veterans in the West Virginia Military Authority’s Patriot Guardens program, of which Melissa Stewart is the director. “I think it’s the ability to not only get somebody’s hands in the dirt but also to give them that different level of connection,” her voice cracks as she tells us, “I cry every time I talk about this. I didn’t expect this. I did not expect this to be the outcome of what we’ve done.”
Patriot Guardens has built a robust and multi-layered support network for veterans with PTSD and substance abuse issues, extending well beyond a midnight lifeline so that when the morning comes, there’s food on the table, good work to be done, a paycheck coming, and money in the bank. And it’s rooted in good old-fashioned self-reliance. “We help individuals take ownership by saying, ‘if I plant this seed, I can produce something that helps me be more self-reliant than running to the grocer,’ especially here in the time of the pandemic,” Stewart explains. An integrated agriculture and economic development initiative, Patriot Guardens is on a mission to improve the lives of West Virginians facing massive challenges around food security, employment, recovery from addiction, and for their veterans, the transition to civilian life.
Stewart joined forces with General Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard to turn what had been a successful collaboration with HBCU West Virginia State into a full-fledged program. She recounts how the mission came into being. “We worked with many populations, socially disadvantaged, those in low-income housing developments, and in all of those scenarios, the overarching theme was that farming is the great equalizer. Everybody needs to eat. We were able to bring people of all walks of life together around the garden plots and farms, working side by side. Everybody had a common goal. It didn’t matter what your socioeconomic status was; everybody was there for a common goal of sowing that seed or planting that plant, to bring that then to the military sector.”
Growing the Mission from the Ground Up
The military sector is its own special landscape. Stewart reflects fondly on her transition from academia to the Guard. “You don’t realize how civilian you are until you’re put into a military setting. It’s quite a learning curve. You talk to each other as you need to be addressed, and you take care of problems and move on to the next one. It’s pretty fast-paced.” She laughs as she tells of her first real encounter with this military mindset, in what could be called Operation Carrot Co-op. As part of the Patriot Guardens program, veterans were offered the opportunity to grow carrots to sell to restaurants. “We thought it was simple; we thought this is a good way to just see how everybody engages together.” But planting 16 seeds, every square foot of soil quickly turned into a detailed operation. Stewart got a phone call the first day, “Ma’am. I’m going to need the proper SOP (standard operating procedure) written up on how to plant the carrots.” She says that’s when she began to realize the precision of a mission-powered mind.
For the military veterans, Stewart says, growing carrots was “something that they can find some peace of mind in, is something that they still have that control over. Agriculture gives you a whole realm of control, be it from, ‘I’m going to plan it at this date, and I know that my harvest is going to happen at some date in the future.’ It’s a very methodic process. And from what we’ve seen, that’s what they thrive on, that structure, that control, that ability to ask, ‘how do you nurture that plant to grow the best?’” She laughs as she recalls the good-natured competition between the veterans over who grew the biggest carrot. “It was hysterical, to say the least. That was the best experience to date. And to see them being able to open up when you get this text when you are able to try to get them over a hump and can go through the proper channels to get them where they need to be, it means something’s happening. It’s more than just planting a seed; it’s ‘let’s develop this relationship, and how can this help break down some walls?’ I’m not gonna say that gardening or farming is the answer. I think you’ve got to meet them where they’re at. But it just so happens that this was our connecting point.”
The connection is strong and extends to the whole family. “What happens is the soldier or airman decides they as a family want to go into agriculture, so they send their wives to the classes, saying ‘I know I’m going to get deployed somewhere down the line, so I need you to be as invested as I am because if I’m going for a year and we’ve got a farm, it can’t just flop.’” One such husband and wife team, the Parkers, became interested in the aeroponic production system that Stewart has spent the past 20 years researching. The Parkers secured an NRCS grant and with the support of Patriot Guardens, they’ve built high tunnel greenhouse systems that “they’re using to supplement their food bill. They’re actively learning to grow in those systems with the full intent that after that two-year timeframe, they’re going to convert to aeroponic tower production,” Stewart explains. In addition to feeding their five growing children, “they will then be able to feed directly into our local food system.”
Patriot Guardens is working to connect individuals like the Parkers directly with restaurants and product producers like J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works to help with niche marketing. The goal is to build up production to the point where Patriot Guardens veterans-turned-farmers can distribute their goods via co-ops, to tackle larger issues of food security throughout the state. “Look at where our food comes from. We bring a lot of it in, or if we grow it here, a lot of it goes back out. It doesn’t make sense.” Stewart explains. “We need to redirect those mindsets and see how we can grow on the meat side or on the produce side. What we need to be is self-sufficient as a state, not only as individual families.”
Through multiple partnerships, Patriot Guardens is building in-roads of self-sufficiency for military and civilian West Virginians, whether by planting 100,000 apple trees to rejuvenate old mine lands, fostering pollinators in hundreds of honeybee hives, or raising grass-fed Angus beef. “We’re working hard with industry on the side of our participants who want to find solace in raising animals. A lot of them come from hunting backgrounds where they’ve already got the experience of dressing down an animal. So we look for opportunities for, say, an MBA soldier or that traditional Guard soldier who gives one weekend a month, but 40 hours a week is working for somebody else. Whether it’s meat cutting or raising steer or pigs to go into production mode, those are perfect scenarios for our soldiers, even in Guard capacity, to help meet local food needs, and help our state become more self-reliant, in the long run.”
Almost Heaven, West Virginia
Stewart calls their new partnership with Buzz Foods “a match made in heaven,” and it seems John Denver would agree. With the help of a large USDA grant, the Charleston-based meat and seafood purveyor is expanding operations to include a top-of-the-line USDA inspected livestock slaughter and processing facility that will be able to handle 5,000 head of cattle. Patriot Guardens is developing a curriculum to train the future Buzz Foods workforce. “We’re able to say, ‘What is your desire, because we have people ready and waiting, and they’re brilliant.’ All we have to do is point them on the correct path, and they will deliver, just like they did with the carrots.”
Patriot Guardens is growing faster than anyone could have anticipated, adding workforce development programs like greenhouse growing college-level intensives, a heavy equipment operating program with the Department of Transportation, post-mine land soil transformation projects, repurposing of former armories in service of the community, the list goes on, with every new development centered in the mission of helping veterans “get back to work and get back to life,” Stewart says. And central to the entire mission is General Hoyer’s guiding question: “What can we do to give back?”