Image Swords to Plowshares: Urban Farming for the New Warrior [Lima Charlie News]
Swords to Plowshares: Urban Farming for the New Warrior [Lima Charlie News]

Swords to Plowshares: Urban Farming for the New Warrior

A U.S. Army combat veteran reports on the therapeutic nature of returning to the land, and a business built on urban farming.

After 20 years of travails and a 10-year-long war, literature’s most celebrated veteran, Odysseus, finally returns to his homeland to find he does not recognize it—or himself—at all. As he sets foot upon home soil, noble Odysseus “awoke from his sleep, having been away so long that he did not know his fatherland again”. Unrecognizable to his wife, his fellow countrymen, and his own people, he asks:

“What are the people whose land I have come to this time?”

In both mind and spirit, this sentiment of disconnection is a common experience of returning service members, harkening back to Homer’s most famous warrior’s journey home some 2,000 years ago.

The age-old classic begs the question—ever relevant in the modern-age: who is the Warrior and how does he figure into his home community? In 2008, a similar feeling became equally visceral for me.

I was commissioned in 1999 at the New Mexico Military Institute. On the morning of September 11, 2001, in the midst of my studies, the Twin Towers came down. As did many, the call to duty was strong. Upon graduation, I transferred on to active duty at Fort Sill, Oklahoma to attend the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course. I would go on to serve two combat deployments to Iraq, conducting combat operations and civil military operations throughout Western Baghdad. I retired as an Army Field Artillery Officer, earning the Combat Action Badge.

Injuries sustained during combat deemed me medically unfit for continued military service. The first of two blasts came in September 2004. I had found myself in the blast radius of two Chinese-made 105 millimeter rockets. A good Combat Arms Officer, I “sucked it up and drove on.” I would later be diagnosed with what is now known as a Traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI wouldn’t reach commonplace usage until years later. I returned for my second combat deployment in 2006. At that time a great deal of my physical and mental injuries would surface.

Like many warrior-veterans coming home, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I never planned on getting out of the military. I was called to the service and I wanted to be a lifer. One thing I did know, with certainty: a return to civilian life would not mean the end of my service to my country, its national security, homeland security, and my local community. Yet one obstacle remained. I was still carrying a great deal of baggage from combat stress, something I needed to overcome.

On the farm,

life springs eternal

The answer would come from an ancient practice known to warriors for centuries. My therapist recommended farming. Connecting with the land. But I live in the city. Not on a farm. That was the challenge.

I enrolled in a class sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project and Operation TBI Freedom (OTF) called “Veterans That Farm.” It was there that I would learn the basics of farming, watering, and providing protection and cover. I used these fundamentals to build a greenhouse in my backyard the following year. Soon enough, I began to feel the healing and rehabilitative power in tangibly working with the garden soil. In fact, it’s scientifically proven that the microbes present in raw soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, can help elevate cognitive function, and possibly even trauma.

Photo credit: @fallingoutofplanesandfreeingtheshitoutofpeople
Photo credit: @fallingoutofplanesandfreeingtheshitoutofpeople

As I started to palpably feel the therapeutic merits of the practice, I began growing vegetables and, soon enough, even got my kids involved. My two daughters, Shay (5) and Lily (7), fell in love with harvesting and learning the trade, at the same time as I was learning it. Alongside their dad, they grew and developed in leaps and bounds, as the farm made an indelible imprint on their hearts and souls. The opportunity to bond with my family over a newfound purpose in life helped mitigate a great deal of my combat stress.

Within 2 years, what began as a hobby had soon evolved into a growing business. In 2015, I met my future business partner, Anthony Fisher. Our paths as professional warriors and, later, professional veteran farmers, coalesced almost perfectly. We met at OTF and shared an intrinsic belief system in the power of therapeutic farming for veterans. Our worldviews fused along our common passion for changing the way people consciously think about the food they purchase, all the way down the supply chain. For us, the profitability of the practice was ancillary.

Tony is a medically retired NCO with 2 combat deployments to Iraq. A rare and honorable feat, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious combat and also earned the Combat Infantry Badge. Like me, he is a single dad, with two daughters, Sydney and Emma.

From humble beginnings, our nascent farming aspirations blossomed from separate warehouses in our respective basements, to a collaborative partnership in a nearby facility almost triple the original size of our individual ventures. In February of last year, I joined Tony as a partner at Tortuga Farms, an urban farm that specializes in hydroponics, aquaponics, and traditional farming techniques. The essence of Tortuga is captured in the core of the locavore movement, supplying locally grown organic farm-to-table produce to our customers.

In the early stages of our partnership, we were overwhelmed by the wealth of non-profits out there, which trained veterans to grow their farming businesses and maximize profit potential. These organizations, however, were under high demand. Instead of waiting around for other people to show us the way, we decided to embark on our own business journey. We started with hydroponics, which utilizes water and nutrients under controlled light and grows vegetables with less energy expended. Next, we moved on to aquaponics which uses the method of growing crops and fish together in re-circulating systems.

To aid in expanding our business and mission of social good, we applied for two grants. Recently, we were awarded a small state farming grant for veterans, which has been very beneficial in keeping us afloat until our USDA grant is processed. The latter also assists veterans in starting farming projects nationwide. Mr. James Craig, the Colorado Agrability Rural Rehabilitation Specialist at Goodwill Industries of Denver, was an instrumental force in helping us secure our initial grant. His continued guidance and unwavering support has greatly helped us grow our farm.

Don Martinez and Anthony Fischer
Anthony Fischer (l) and Don Martinez (r)

As Tortuga Farms grows, our long-term foremost vision is to train new veteran farmers in proper farming techniques to be able to provide for the community around them. National Geographic notes that the average age of a farmer is around 58 years old, so we are looking for the younger generation to replace this contingent. Once our grant is put into effect, we plan to expand our operation out to the farm and partner with a farmer close to Colorado Springs, a critical factor in ensuring our carbon footprint stays minimized, as well. Ideally, we would like to create a farm center closer to the city limits, so that our customers can make order requests year-round.

With aquaponics and hydroponics, we’ll be able to provide our consumer base with produce even in the frigid Colorado winters and especially out of season. It’s key that our water and food sources are protected and always operational so that we can feed our communities and meet their evolving demands. In light of global warming trends, a potential drought could spiral a region or community into a food emergency, skyrocketing prices. That’s what our efforts seek to target and, eventually, prevent. The more accountable we are with our energy and water, the better we serve our country and protect its food security.

The Next Generation of Returning Warriors

Even years later, I reflect with gratitude on that first therapy session I attended, which started the ball rolling on my path to finding a new purpose in life. With half of all farmers likely to retire in the next decade, farming is increasingly becoming the du jour of the younger generation, veterans in particular. It offers our brothers and sisters in arms an opportunity to, once again, be part of a close-knit unit and, more importantly, revives in them a sense of purpose—a responsibility to deliver to the consumer eating their food; to the communities who depend on their product; to a nation dependent on a socially sustainable agricultural cycle.

From a comparable age, you won’t find young adults who’ve held as much responsibility in the palms of their hands, as returning warriors. For me, the profession draws many parallels to the fight on the battlefield—the hyper-attention to detail required, the time management, the razor-sharp focus on timing and responsiveness. But, perhaps the greatest difference lies in the very essence of the bucolic trade: on the front lines, you learn to cope with death, destruction, casualty. On the farm, life springs eternal.

And so, as I look to the future—to the next generation of warriors to return home—I offer my story as one possible answer to our heroic Grecian Soldier’s age-old question. Even for Odysseus—who had descended to the depths of Hades, battled the Lotus Eaters, and fended off the Sirens—conquering the return home is half the battle won.

Donald E. Martinez, Lima Charlie News

Don Martinez is a retired Field Artillery officer living in Colorado Springs, CO. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom with two combat deployments to Iraq where he earned his Combat Action Badge. Don reports on national security, public policy, political management, homeland security, and veterans issues.

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