Military Veterans Find Employment, Comfort in Farming
It's a picture-perfect autumn day at Serenity Valley Farm. The air is cool, but the sun is shining.
"The property runs basically in a straight line down to the valley, and you can see where the tree line meets the sky is actually where the tree line stops, and that's the property line," said Brett Lawler.
A farm is not where a young Lawler ever imagined he would end up.
As a teen, he knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up: join the military. He went to college at the University of Texas on an ROTC scholarship. After graduating, he spent nine years in the army, first as a field artillery officer and then in military intelligence. Then he served two combat tours in Iraq.
As it happened, Brett was medically retired. Once he was back home, he was less sure of what he wanted to do.
"I started to question whether or not corporate America was for me," Lawler said. "[I] started looking around at what was available, learning more and more about the economy and the critical infrastructure of the U.S. and the fragilities therein, and came to the conclusion that our food system was woefully inadequate and that, going forward, my efforts would probably best be spent growing food for local communities."
Lawler isn't the only military vet who has turned to farming, regardless of minimal knowledge of plowing and planting. In fact, there's a whole organization dedicated to encouraging and helping young military veterans break into the field. It's called the Farmer-Veteran Coalition.
Two statistics helped inspire the program's creation. First, for every two American farmers retiring, only one is going back into agriculture, making the average age of an American farmer 60-65 years old. Second is the high veteran unemployment rate, around 20 percent. Chris Ritthaler, the national veteran outreach coordinator, says that the group's main goal is to help interested veterans all across the country find mentors and resources to get started.
"Essentially, the program exists so the veterans can get those knowledge-based resources that they need to be successful and help them early on so that they're not just going to be another statistic of a failed farm because they didn't have the background they needed to get into it and the support structure," Rithaler said.
The group wants to "enlist the veterans help to build the green economy." Ritthaler says that the ability to continue to have an impact on the community is one of the reasons veterans are often drawn to this industry.
"It's helped them with their anger;" he said. "It's helped them with their post-traumatic stress issues. It's helped give them a new sense of purpose. A lot of times when they leave the military, they're feeling very lost. They don't have a clear purpose anymore."
Lawler agreed and said, "I basically sat down and I thought about what would give me reason or cause to get up every morning, and growing food for local communities was it."
Lawler and his wife, Kristie, also wanted to be closer to her family in Buffalo, NY. They now split their time between a home in a Pittsburgh suburb and their family's farm, Serenity Valley, in Kittaning, northeast of the city.
The Lawlers mostly grow mixed vegetables, but that's not all that you'll find on the 50-acre plot.
"You see to the right, we have our chickens over there," said Kristie Lawler. "They're our laying hens, so we also sell eggs, as well."
The coalition's list of farming veterans includes several businesses across the country that are sustainable and organic. But the type of farms where veterans work runs the gamut. Brett and Kristie Lawler decided to make Serenity Valley a Certified Naturally Grown farm.
"Which is basically the same standards as organic," Brett said. "It's just not a federal program. It's a grassroots program, but given our views on sustainability and resource shortages to come, relying on petroleum-based fertilizers is foolish, in my opinion."
The couple sells their eggs, peppers, and much more at a farm stand where they talk to customers young and old about growing.
So, Brett's still in the service — just a different kind of service to the community.