When disabled Air Force veteran John Mahshie took his now-wife Nicole on their first date, he shared a dream with her. On his ten-acre family plot in Hendersonville, NC, he envisioned creating a thriving micro-community of veterans—a ‘healing farm’ to support mind, body and spirit. Since Mahshie opened Veterans Healing Farm (VHF) three years ago, that vision has become a vibrant reality.
The transition from military to civilian life poses extraordinary challenges—from unemployment, divorce, social isolation and substance abuse, to high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide. From his own experience, Mahshie knew the risks inherent in the loss of a tightly knit military community and the loss of a clear mission to serve.
He views VHF as “a place for seeding purpose.” Here vets invest time and energy in a new community and find ways to serve others. “We focus on building relationships, and exposing vets to new ‘missions,’” Mahshie says. “They learn new skills—like permaculture gardening techniques and animal care. And they participate in regular potluck dinners, camping retreats and other activities that nurture community and build relationships.”
Free produce for vets
Mahshie walks barefoot between mounded rows of cabbage, kale and pumpkins. He points with pride to the 380-foot Donation Garden, an American flag design set in red, white and blue plastic mulch sheeting. Planted and tended by vets and volunteers, the Donation Garden produced close to seven thousand pounds of produce this season, all of which has been donated free of charge to veterans and their families.
“We’re bringing free produce to the VA Hospital every Tuesday morning,” says Heather Mallory, Marine veteran and VHF Board member. “It’s such a cool way to give back, right where the veterans are.” Veterans and their families can help themselves to the bounty. Any excess is donated to area food pantries and to Veterans Restoration Quarters, a homeless shelter across the street from the hospital.
“Donating fresh produce to veterans is less about the vegetables,” says Mahshie, “and more about a message of love and respect.”
The Permatribe program
At any given time, some 30 families (or about 100 individual members) are active in the Permatribe program at VHF. These vets and their families work together on the farm, cultivate their onsite CSA (community supported agriculture) and partake in permaculture training seminars and community events.
With the addition of ‘barracks’ made of shipping containers, VHF will soon offer a week-long residential Permaculture Boot Camp to eight vets at a time from around the country. According to Mahshie, the permaculture model demonstrates that a quarter acre of land can feed 30 families in a sustainable and costeffective way and grow a strong community.
Permaculture Boot Camp training videos and lessons will be available to download free from the VHF website. VHF hopes that vets around the country will replicate the Permatribe program as a viable path to food security and sustainability, a renewed sense of purpose, personal empowerment and healing.
VHF seeks to create strong collaborations with other veteran-focused organizations. “It takes courage and energy for a vet to reach out for help,” Mahshie says. “We want to be the bridge to connect the vet with a personal phone call, not just point to an agency’s website.
“There’s no such thing as competition when it comes to veterans’ services,” he adds. “With so much demand and so little supply, all of us who offer services to veterans need to link arms. Our combined efforts will be so much more significant.”
Banta Whitner is senior editor for Plough to Pantry. She blogs at simpleandgrounded.com.