Editor’s Note: The following is a guest column by Dr. Keith Tidball, a researcher in Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources and a former infantry soldier.

His column is being published as part of the Ithaca Voice series, “Hope on the Homefront,” which can be read in full here.

To submit a guest column, contact me anytime at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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Farming is one of the oldest professions, probably about as old as soldiering.  Historically, the two were often interlinked, even in the recent story of the birth and development of the United States.

It’s no wonder that soldiers returning from the last ten plus years of warfare in the Middle East are turning to farming as a route to reintegration into civilian life.

Dr. Keith Tidball

I have a personal as well as professional perspective on this, as I left Washington DC and the aftermath of 9/11 to start a fresh life on a farm, and so have many of my friends.

There is a growing scientific literature on this, and I am hopefully contributing to it.  But here, I will speak frankly and in lay terms. This is why I think returning combatants are turning to farming.

A sense of purpose

Veterans returning from combat, or even veterans who served without deploying, often struggle with a dawning awareness of a lack of purpose or direction.  It is difficult for some to transition from the very clear guidance of “your job is to close with and kill the enemy, so that you and your brothers will protect the innocent and neutralize terror and those who seek to spread it” to “thanks for your service – good luck.”

It’s a transition from a clear meritocracy to a fuzzy free-for-all. But all of us, whether we served in theatre or behind the scenes, took an oath to protect and serve – most of us feel that that oath never expires.

Veterans leave the military service with a desire to continue doing something meaningful that will have a positive impact on the community around us. We know our training makes us effective, that we are mission-minded and have a powerful work ethic, that we are not risk-averse and that we have mental and physical powers of endurance and perseverance.

Farming is the ultimate meritocracy

Personal responsibility, action, discipline, and integrity are the fundamental ingredients of any successful farming effort.  One must do the daily basics when livestock, when lives are involved. One must pull weeds, cultivate soil, prune, maintain, or the crop will be overrun, the mission lost. One must maintain equipment. One must maintain a high level of readiness for “go-time” – that good stretch of weather for planting, making hay, or harvesting is a narrow time window. Veterans resonate with this deeply, and find an analog for thriving in this environment.

Risk and reward

The meritocracy mentioned above appears here. The rewards of daily tasks done right are tangible. There will be fruits, vegetables, and grains, meat, milk and eggs. There will be forage and fiber. And there will be no small amount of risk to obtain these rewards.  There are not colorful ribbons and medals, but the fruits of our labors are colorful and trigger that familiar intense burst of gratification. There will be setbacks, and uncontrollable variables that will require focused resolve and resilience.

It might look as if all is lost, and then we hang on and prevail with a calf, a cutting of hay, a crop wrested from a droughty summer. And we quietly take stock at the end of the day, knowing only a few will take note of this small battle won, but many will unknowingly benefit.

We may look to our flag flying on our farm, basked in a late summer sunset, and smile at the irony of taps, now sounded by the sound of cows settling in for the night, horses making their last vocal contacts with each other from their stalls, or the wind through the field or orchard. These taps are about life, and our efforts to intimately take part once again.

The fight for independence, and self-sufficiency

To receive the rewards requires a daily gut-check, a gritty independence and resolve.  I remember the first time I heard Paul Harvey’s 1978 speech on what a farmer is (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/02/paul-harveys-1978-so-god-made-a-farmer-speech/272816/ ). I thought to myself as a young boy, “I want to do that… do I have what it takes?” Later, similar messages about patriotism, “The few, the proud,”  “Be all you can be…” formed new challenges for me. Then, as now, I felt that they were calling on similar impulses. It was about the responsibility of freedom, that we as Americans had a duty to be self-sufficient, to be under-stated and self-reliant. To have the stuff required to stand and be counted, but to never give our sacred liberties away. The farming culture retains this. Farmers the world over are known to be some of the most cantankerous, fiercely independent types to walk the land.

Today, many veterans resonate with the local sustainable food movement.  They believe, and I count myself among them, that corporate agriculture and its lobby are restricting our rights to know what is in our food supply, to know the environmental costs of agricultural production methods. Some veterans fight to liberate our local friends and neighbors from misinformation and lack of transparency and accountability. This fight is a good fight, and consistent with our oaths. For many, it is also a way of acting upon the many realizations that dawn upon a young man or woman in a combat zone, or in a foreign country, realizations about one’s one country, one’s own assumptions about consumption – from food to factory made automobiles.

Farming allows the farmer to make his own choices – what to plant and when, what technologies to use or avoid, what alterations to the landscape should be employed, and so forth. The farm provides the possibility of a landscape scale project where the result of those personally owned choices will be personally owned consequences. We crave that, and it is a part of the independence and self-sufficiency equation that makes farming attractive.

Farming requires the farmer to be a living Swiss Army knife

Farming requires know-how and technical competence. Everything from the most basic soil manipulations, horticultural knowledge, technical expertise as needed to read field manuals, operations guides for everything from roto-tillers to tractors, basic veterinary medical skills, and the list goes on.  Farming requires the farmer to be a living swiss-army knife. This is analogous to many military occupational specialties, especially in the combat arms, where being an expert does not mean knowing a lot about one thing, but instead being a jack-of-all trades. Competency builds personal confidence. Often veterans miss the feeling  of being competent and confident, and farming can be a great way of recovering that.

The therapy of living things

We humans have a natural affinity for other life. I have written about that in the scientific literature a fair bit. Veterans who are struggling to reconnect can often find “handholds” in interactions with other life – plants, animals, and entire landscapes defy the darker notions of futility and death in their vibrant, incessant, steady march of living as hard as possible.  Even the weeds are insufferable in their living! Farming enables one to surround him or herself with this cycle of living, and to become an integral part of it rather than a spectator.

This kind of engagement and reintegration with the larger community, the community as Aldo Leopold described it, which includes all the life around you, can be a powerful antidote to the isolation of the digital world as experienced through prescription drugs and self-medication. Studies show that engagement with “life” and nature (and I think farming is natural) reduces anxiety and rumination and a host of other benefits.

Like other forms of outdoor recreation and engagement, not everyone is cut out to farm, or wants to. But many do, and the benefits for those that so choose are being discussed in the popular media increasingly. What I am finding, in either my academic work or on my own farm, is that farming will not make you financially rich. But when push comes to shove, it’s the mistress that is my farm that has saved my life more than once, and for the reasons above, and likely others, I am hers as long as she will have me.

— Dr. Keith Tidball is a researcher at Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources. His work is focused on the interactions between humans and nature in the context of disasters and war: particularly how humans and their interactions with nature are related to a system’s ability to bounce back after being disturbed.

His work is part of the concept of “Greening in the Red Zone”.

Tidball enlisted as an infantry soldier in 1990. He attended  Officer Candidates School at Fort Knox, KY, and graduated “Honor Graduate/ Number one in class” in 1993. He currently volunteers in the New York Guard as the 10th Brigade S3 (plans and operations officer).

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