from the good earth

Helping Vets’ Skills Blossom

By Vanessa Caceres / Photography By Peter Acker | October 11, 2016
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Gene Jones and Dr Robert Kluson.

Green Path Veterans Farm


Veterans sometimes find it hard to transition back into the routines of life outside the military.

A year-old Sarasota-based program hopes to make that transition a little easier by getting vets’ hands dirty—literally.

The program, Green Path Veterans Farm, was started by the Florida Veterans for Common Sense Fund, says Gene Jones, one of the group’s founding members. There was discussion in the group about the importance of local urban agriculture to help cut down on the energy wasted by transporting and importing food from other states and countries. The group also learned that if more food was locally produced, it could have a $100 million impact on the local economy.

“If we could do just a fifth or a tenth of that,” the program could be successful, Jones says.

Members also thought an urban ag project would help train veterans in farming and give them valuable job skills. “There’s a big need for employment among veterans,” Jones says. “Any training is a big plus.”

So, a year and a half ago, the fund used two smaller grants from the Michael Saunders Foundation and the Sarasota Bay Rotary Club to start the Green Path Veterans Farm Project. The program uses garden space that is part of the Orange Blossom Community Garden and on location at the Easter Seals of Southwest Florida. Both veterans and community members can volunteer at the garden spaces to help grow kale, collards, peppers, lettuce, and other items.

The program also employs veter an Nadine Noky on a part-time basis as a project coordinator. Noky, a U.S. Army vet who spent time in Iraq, began as a volunteer but has worked part-time since the summer. “I enjoy being out there and being with veterans and the community. I see potential for veterans through the program,” she said. One thing she particularly likes about Green Path is the way it connects the local community with veterans.

Eventually, the plan is to grow the program enough to employ an executive director and become a model urban farm in Florida, Jones says. The project is also seeking more grants.

Growing a garden has been a real learning experience for everyone involved, Jones says. Last year, they went “whole hog” growing tomatoes, but as the plants got ready to set fruit, yellow leaf virus destroyed the crop, Jones says. Despite that tomato frustration, other produce that blossomed was bought by local restaurants, helping to build the local economy.

Veteran response

In addition to the economic benefits, Jones has been pleased to see how volunteer veterans have found joy from the program. “My observation is that I see them work in the garden, and they just enjoy it to the max,” he says. That’s a step in the right direction. “Some of them have had problems that make it difficult to work with other people. It’s not all roses. Some are skeptical,” Jones says.

The program also will appeal to millennial- age vets who have an interest in urban agriculture, says 31-year-old Noky. She sees many of her peers interested in knowing where their food comes from and feeling pride when they can grow something themselves.

Green Path continues to seek veteran and community volunteers. Volunteers can help with record keeping, computer work, weeding, watering, irrigation, or looking out for invasive insects. The gardens could benefit from a mechanical pro who can step in when equipment breaks.

Master gardeners would also be a plus. “Most of us are neophytes,” Jones says.

The push to give veterans job skills led the folks at the Common Sense Fund to approach Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota about offering a related certificate program. By January the school is slated to offer a certification program already created by the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscapers Association that will help prepare anyone looking to work on a nursery or at a farm, says Chuck Drake, Suncoast outgoing program manager. The program covers topics such as propagation, fertilizers, and irrigation; it will take about a year to complete.

Find out more about the project online at floridaveteransforcommonsensefund.org, or on Facebook, under the name Green Path Veterans Farms.

Photo 1: Veterans Dennis Plews, Gene Jones, and Dave Siegwald planting seeds;
Photo 3: Veteran Hector Muniz carrying flags;
Photo 4: Veterans Harold (Hal) Noonan and Ernest (Ernie) Lohmann.
Choosing seeds.
Article from Edible Sarasota at http://ediblesarasota.ediblecommunities.com/things-do/helping-vets-skills-blossom
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