Heroic Food is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to prepare and train military veterans for careers in sustainable farming, agricultural trades, and food entrepreneurship in a veteran-supportive environment. Terra Cultura interviewed Heroic Food Founder and Executive Director Leora Barish about her experiences starting and running the organization. Leora is a screenwriter, educator, social justice advocate and self-proclaimed army brat. After mentoring veterans in writing during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, she decided to start a sustainable farm school for veterans in 2012.
The work was love and it revived him, soothed his mind, brought him joy and satisfaction.
Terra Cultura: How do you envision the bridge between veterans and agriculture? What do veterans bring to agriculture and what does agriculture bring to veterans? Why this particular pairing?
Leora Barish: The bridge is already there; the pairing is a natural one. 44% of veterans come from rural agricultural backgrounds. Veterans are mission driven and farming is a mission worthy of their drive. Veterans share with farmers a tremendous instinct for work, for service to society, for stewardship of the land they pledged their lives to defend. Veterans share with farmers the values of duty, conservation, interdependence, integrity, self-sufficiency, competence.
Then there’s the therapeutic bridge between veterans and farming. Working outdoors, hands in the dirt, growing new life, caring for animals – this work has a powerful healing effect.
I’ll tell you one story. My father was a veteran of three major wars (WW II, Korea, and Vietnam). He retired with 100% disability and moved to Arizona. This was in the 1960s. The area he moved to was full of new orange groves. My father, a Brooklyn native, was filled with peace by the sweet-smelling groves. Someone gave him a seedling and he planted it in his back yard, which was dry and lifeless. He tended the seedling and watched it grow and bought more seedlings and soon his whole backyard was a mini orange grove, alive with birds and rabbits. The work was love and it revived him, soothed his mind, brought him joy and satisfaction. I saw these effects first hand, and I knew there were other veterans in need of an orange-tree revival.
TC: Do you see a community being formed among the program participants? What do you think is the importance of this community? Are there ways that you facilitate the formation of that community?
LB: Veterans are a community – a warrior caste – they don’t need us to help them form a community. What they need is to re-integrate into civilian life, so that they’re not a scattered caste of exiles, isolated, alienated, cut off. So that’s a whole unique piece of work, to help them re-integrate. Farming can do that: the earth herself, the work itself, and the example of farmers like Hugh Williams and Hanna Bail of Threshold Farm (for example), and communities like Hawthorne Valley Farm, can help facilitate the transition from warrior to grower and provider.
We are supporting our neighbors instead of competing with them.
TC: What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned through starting up Heroic Foods?
LB: How complex veterans are, “man’s search for meaning”, the screwed up relationship between society and its most essential members (warriors and farmers), how people and land can be revived and regenerated, the connection between compost and poetry (thanks to Bruno Follador), the microbiology of the soil, how complex farming is, how hilarious chickens are, how short a day is, how short a life is.
One thing I learned in the course of our work is that when a non-profit starts a farm, unless you donate everything you grow to other non-profits, you will inevitably be creating unfair competition with the small, ecology-based, ethical, for-profit as well as non-profit farms in your area, competition which no small farm can afford, especially no family farm where 100% of everyone’s resources goes into making ends meet. All you, the non-profit farmer, wants to do is cover your input costs, but the regular family farmer needs to make a market-place profit in order to pay for their farm inputs (which you get donated or discounted), their families’ living expenses, health insurance (a huge problem for small farmers), college tuition for kids, etc. Even if you price your produce to match local farmers’ prices so an not to undercut them, you are still creating competition for customers that small farmers can’t afford, not to mention competition for prime acreage, for volunteers and apprentices, etc. So although our goal was to help small farms and promote ag-ed and ecology, etc, we were actually on course to do them more harm than good.
In the end, we radically revised our plan. We made the hard choice not to start a farm, but instead to partner with local farmers, and to use our non-profit donor-sourced educational funds to pay them to host workshops and teach veterans on their farms or on our “campus”. That way, we are supporting our neighbors instead of competing with them. We also decided to partner instead of competing with local ag/ed/environmental/food justice groups (as well as other vet services and therapeutic groups of more kinds that you can imagine). That way, we can, to some degree though not entirely, avoid fishing in the same pool of highly competitive donor/grant dollars or the same pool of program participants, volunteers, etc so that – hopefully – our work won’t negatively impact the people and programs in our area.
It should be like studying violin or Kabbalah – you don’t just go out and shop for a Stradivarius or open a Kabbalah center. First you learn.
TC: Do you teach or advocate a particular method of farming? Is there a farming “philosophy” that is particularly conducive to your programming?
LB: We advocate and teach sustainable growing: soil–based, conservation based, ecology sensitive, values based, minimal inputs. Our bottom line is the individual and collective health of the soil, plants, animals, and people.
TC: Are there people or organizations that have inspired or guided your mission? What about books or films?
LB: I’ve been inspired, guided, taught, corrected and improved by nearly everyone I’ve worked with: every veteran, every farmer; teachers, ecologists, and poets; members of my family; too many people to name. As for books and films: they are too many to name. But here’s a few: Bruno Follador article connecting Goethe and compost; Seeing Like A State – James C. Scott – the chapters about farming and forest management; Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase by Roger P. Kennedy.
TC: Do you have any advice for people wanting to farm or help veterans? How can people support Heroic Food?
LB: Yes – don’t start your own organization! Find other people who share your values and your goals and ask them how you can help them, how you can learn from them, how you can work with them, pool resources, etc.
Don’t start your own farm until you’ve worked on a mentor farm for at least five to ten years. It should be like studying violin or Kabbalah – you don’t just go out and shop for a Stradivarius or open a Kabbalah center. First you learn.