We visit the Veterans Organic Garden in New Bern and talk to disabled former service members who are growing crops for the community.
Finding a job is hard enough. If you’re a disabled or homeless veteran, finding employment can be even more of a challenge. A non-profit in New Bern called Veterans Organic Garden is hiring disabled and homeless veterans, and producing organic fruits and vegetables for the community. The idea came about in 2010. After two years of planning, Executive Director Lovay Wallace-Singleton says they broke ground last March with a mission different than most veteran agriculture programs in the country.
“We are located right in the city. Most of the other programs are rural. But we wanted to bring our services to the city because that’s where most of the homeless population is and that’s where most of the people come to get their services.”
The Veterans Organic Garden is situated on just an acre, outside of the Stanley White Recreation Center. On one side of the garden, a playground and pavilion. On the other, a line of small houses in the Five Points community, a long time disadvantaged section of the city near downtown.
“A lot of the people from the community have kind of started taking a shortcut through to kind of look at what we have growing and what we’re doing. They also stop and talk with us about different needs they have in their home garden and also ask us what we are growing.”
This Wednesday morning, a group of 10 veterans were working on site. Instead of traditional gardening tools, they’re using a power drill and ladder to construct a small, wooden shelter.
“We’re assembling a pallet house to create a little more shade for the lettuce, that way it can grow a little better.”
Veteran coordinator Deanna Hull has been with the Veterans Organic Garden for nine months.
“I was working part-time nights for a security company, and with four kids it just wasn’t conducive for anything.”
Hull is a disabled veteran in her 20s and has blonde hair pulled back into a braid. As she wipes her hands on her overalls, she tells me she’s never worked in a garden, but enjoys helping others, a value instilled during her service in the Marine Corp.
“I always like giving back to the community in whatever way I can and when it helps my fellow military members, then I’m always up for it.”
In addition to building pallet house, some of the workers are mixing compost, installing an irrigation system, and adding organic fertilizers to the raised bed gardens.
On the site there’s a large greenhouse where seedlings are grown and a couple of military style tents for storage. More than a dozen raised beds constructed from hay bales and wood are spread throughout the garden.
“There are rabbits out here the size of large cats so we had to do something to lift the crops up.”
The Veterans Organic Garden grows typical plants most folks have growing in their backyard, like peas, cabbage, turnips, asparagus and potatoes. But what stands out about the veteran’s garden is that it’s built on a concrete pad, which used to be a tennis court. Located at the center of the garden, the asphalt ensures their disabled employees can easily access and maneuver around the concrete block raised beds.
“This is a firm surface for us to use for wheelchairs, for walkers and veterans with canes and things like that.”
The raised beds also prevent employees from having to kneel down to pull weeds or care for the plants. Taking a break from building the pallet house, one of the employees Tony Sawyer walks over to a bench using a cane. He’s wearing jeans, a long sleeve work shirt and a Dallas Cowboys hat. Sawyer started working at the Veterans Organic Garden about a month and a half ago.
“I can’t do too much standing, so they allow me to bring my cane to work. You gotta like helping the old people.”
Not only is the garden laid out with mobility in mind, it’s also specifically designed grow organic produce.
“I didn’t want to have any more of an impact on them with pesticides or herbicides or any other kind of chemicals than they’ve already had. The other thing is I wanted to go back to the principles we used before they started using the chemicals on crops to kill the pest or to fertilize them.”
Without the use of chemicals, Singleton says they rely on more time consuming practices for fertilizing plants, like composting and vermiculture.
“Which is worm farms. And we use a lot of worm tea on the plants that come out of the greenhouse and also in the soil.”
The border of the garden are lined with a variety of fruit trees and rose bushes, azaleas, and other flowering shrubs, which attract pollinating insects, a necessary part of growing organically.
Last year, the garden was just getting started and the small amount of produce grown was donated to the community and Religious Community Service’s Soup Kitchen in New Bern. This year, they’ll still donate food. But they’ll also be able to sell the organic produce to the public.
“So people will be able to come straight to the veteran’s garden where we’re growing things and also purchase them, so we’re really excited about that.”
She adds they’re currently in the process of setting up SNAP and EBT services for the market.
A disabled veteran herself, Singleton says the mission of the Veterans Organic Garden isn’t just about growing food, it’s also about helping former service men and women maintain healthy lives.
“It gives them that sense of comradery that they had when they were in the military. For the veterans that were unemployed, it gives them employment. It makes a difference when you’re making your own money and not just receiving a check.”
The non-profit employs ten veterans, another was hired just this morning. They’re paid $10 an hour and work part-time Tuesday through Friday from 8:30 to 12:30 and on Saturday from 9 to 1. Worker Tony Sawyer is thankful for a job and the skills he’s learning. Since starting work only a month and a half ago, the Vietnam era vet says his life has changed for the better.
“Now, I have a purpose. And it helps a whole lot. Gets your mind off the negative things and helps the neighborhood.”
The Veterans Organic Garden not gives veterans an income, it teaches them a trade. Through a US Department of Agriculture grant, Singleton says they will provide hands on training to veterans who may want to set up their own farm or agricultural practice someday.
“As these veterans go out of the program and start raising produce themselves, they’ll be able to come back to the Veterans Garden and sell it. So it’s a well-rounded program we think.”
Singleton has big plans for the garden. First on the agenda is improving accessibility for disabled veterans. The gravel path makes it difficult for wheelchair bound veterans to get to the garden. She hopes they’ll soon have an all-terrain vehicle that will carry people from the parking lot to the garden site.
This summer, Singleton hopes to roll out an organic produce delivery service.
LS: “We’re just trying to get the program set up on our website so people will be able to order, pay for it online and we just deliver it to them."
JB: "so people in this neighborhood surrounding the garden?"
LS: In this neighborhood but also in the greater New Bern area because we’ll be able to bike all over town.
JB: (turning to Sawyer) You have some work cut out for you.
TS: I’m the busy deliverer, I love it!
The concept of the Veterans Organic Garden is being duplicated on a two acre plot in Havelock. Other eastern North Carolina locations like Jacksonville and Wilmington are being considered. Singleton hopes maybe one day gardens growing organic produce and employing homeless and disabled veterans will be across the entire State.
For more information on the Veterans Organic Garden, go to http://www.veteransorganicgarden.com/