John Mahshie’s goals lie between the rows. The former U.S. Airman founded Veterans Healing Farm in Hendersonville with his wife, administrative coordinator Nicole Mahshie. Helped by a corps of volunteers, the couple donates thousands of pounds of produce each season to area veterans through a central location: the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville. The Mahshies, who have two young daughters and are expecting a third child, also oversaw a building project on the grounds. Two shipping containers have been converted into a residential outpost so that John and Nicole can teach other veterans to replicate the nonprofit program across the country.
You’re always diversifying your crops. What did you grow this season?
John: Everything that you can grow here in Henderson County, we grew. Tons of heirloom-variety tomatoes, nutrient-dense food … in addition to the produce and the kale and the lettuce, the flowers were huge. We did 30 varieties of regular flowers and 30 varieties of sunflowers. Our medicinal herb garden expanded this year. We’re training veterans on how to use herbs to make medicines.
How fulfilling is it to see your dream happen?
John: I’m often encouraged to look around and be excited, but in my mind, all I see is the mission. We’re not quite there. What we did this summer was nothing short of a miracle, but, realistically, everything we do is. Our organization isn’t that old. Most of what we’ve done has been in the last two years. We’ve accomplished a ton … [but I] focus on that time when I’m sitting on the porch with the veterans with everything being done — then I can enjoy that sense of fulfillment.
Nicole: John told me of his idea of a “healing farm” on our first date in the summer of 2007. Neither of us had any farming experience, but it appealed to both of us. There’s just a magical sense about the land and I could “see” his vision. It was part of the reason I fell in love with him.
You have civilians and veterans working together on the farm. Why?
John: It doesn’t make much sense to create a space that only consists of, say, a veteran who has experienced combat. …They wouldn’t have chance to cross-pollinate and be around other individuals who can facilitate the transitional experience. The vice-versa is also true. How many civilians have met a real veteran? It’s just an arbitrary label in their minds, but this is a real person. We’re a very diverse community. To see people break bread and share meals and then they become friends and there’s a sense of family, that’s the magic.
Nicole: All of the frustrations of starting a business have been trumped by the beauty I’ve been able to witness in people coming alongside us, working with us, serving … it sounds like a farming cliché, but it really has been like watching a vegetable or fruit sprout, grow, and ripen.
There’s a study that says a large number of veteran suicides are older veterans …
John: That’s why this program is so unique. So many of these guys feel that if they took their life no one would notice. It’s an incorrect belief that they have nothing to give back. We show up at the hospital and tell them that we haven’t forgotten about them, and we’re concerned, and are excited to share this eggplant with them. It sounds silly, but then you have them showing up the next week …
Nicole: Often there’s a sense of surprise that we’re giving it away for free …
John: Now you have this salty old Marine telling us he cooked the eggplant like [we suggested]. He’s crying over a bouquet of flowers, but it has nothing to do with the flowers or the produce. He feels a sense of dignity and he feels respected and cared for. At the core level there’s just that desire to feel touched, that human connection.