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Healing fields: Farming serves as therapy for soldiers

By John Gibb

CLAY, W.Va. -- Eric Grandon, 47 and scathed from serving in six tours with the U.S. Army, looked out over his property for more than a year. He aimlessly gazed out his storm door and often wondered what he could do with the rest of his life.

The Clay County man never expected to be collecting Social Security Disability benefits at age 45. Grandon, like many veterans returning from combat, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said it stems from his involvement in Operation Desert Storm.

Grandon periodically has vivid flashbacks of his warfare experiences. He recalls a horrific flashback he had on Feb. 27, 2011, that left him unable to care for himself for three weeks. He doesn't like to talk about it beyond admitting that it was absolutely miserable.

Grandon has been discriminated against. His anxiety and PTSD prevent him from working in society.

His pride, however, was restored when he met James McCormick.

McCormick, owner of Raising Cane Farms in Mason County, is also a retired wounded veteran who served in two combat tours with the U.S. Army. His mission is to work with veterans who are returning from combat by providing them a place to work and relax with a team of other veterans. He has found value in agriculture.

"There is tremendous therapeutic value with farming and agriculture," McCormick said. "Watching life blossom, seeing Mother Nature's work and getting hands in the soil are great for these veterans. It gets them out of their homes and agriculture-based therapy is really helping to heal these people."

A sense of accomplishment

McCormick has visited Grandon and helped him with work around his property. McCormick is the chairman of the West Virginia Veterans Coalition and sits on the board with the farmer.

"He made me secretary without even meeting me," Grandon said. "That was truly an honor. Once we began talking, it seemed as though we grew up together and served together. We are the answers to each other's prayers. He's a rock star in the veteran world and I'm forever in debt to him."

McCormick approached West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick about the possibility of assisting wounded veterans become farmers and agribusiness leaders.

"I will never forget it," McCormick said. "Walt looked at me and said, 'I've never experienced combat, but let's work together and do something to help these folks because it's just the right thing to do.' It was also important that we didn't forget the young teens whose parents may have perished in combat, the widow and the orphan -- we wanted to do something for them as well."

Helmick hired McCormick to serve as the director of his new initiative: The West Virginia Warriors and Veterans to Agriculture Project. The project currently is in its beginning stages, though Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has been briefed on it.

"This project is not a hands out to veterans -- it's a hands up," said Bob Tabb, senior manager for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. "This is an opportunity for veterans to work together, enjoy the camaraderie with fellow veterans and learn about agricultural practices that will help veterans harvest crops and grow food.

"Veterans get a sense of accomplishment when they see their final products and are able to sell their crops or consume it themselves. Food tastes better when you've actually raised it."

The project seeks to empower military personnel and veterans to provide locally grown food and agriculture-related business within West Virginia.

The overarching goal of the project is to cultivate a new generation of farmers, agribusiness leaders and develop viable employment and meaningful careers through a collaboration of state agencies, resources, farming and military communities both state and privately owned.

Those assisting with the project are working directly with organizations and programs to help with the physical and psychological needs of injured and wounded veterans by opening up access to property, materials and assistance to those groups that work with wounded and injured troop members.

McCormick said the project also will provide marketing and mentoring assistance to veteran farmers who currently are operating an agribusiness.

McCormick said he is working to acquire property that veterans can use for agricultural purposes -- 15-20 acre plots he would offer to them at a yearly, affordable rate. McCormick and Tabb said they have been in talks with the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority regarding obtaining reclaimed mining land there.

For those wounded veterans who have lost a limb in combat, this project will assist in getting them equipment and tools with special adaptations. Tabb said the sophistication of machinery today is amazing -- there are pieces of equipment and tools that can be used by people who have a variety of physical limitations.

Several veterans, including Grandon, are using their own land to grow their crops and raise livestock.

Grandon has harvested sorghum, which is the main ingredient in molasses, but hasn't found success yet.

"I was unable to grow sorghum this year," Grandon said. "It was a lot of mistakes on my part. The weather was another major factor...there was so much rain. However, it was a learning experience. I know how to improve for next year."

Grandon rotor tilled his sorghum field, a task that took him nearly three weeks to complete. He planted winter rye to prep his field for winter. The rye produces a ground cover that holds soil in place against the forces of wind and water. It also prevents compaction in tilled fields. Grandon does not use any spray or pesticides on his crops.

 "I didn't do well but I had fun," Grandon said. "Farmers typically do not make a lot of money, especially with all the expenses involved. Although money is good, I mainly farm for the therapeutic value. I have regained my life. I've found my purpose and that is what truly matters to me."

Ready to work

Grandon is preparing to build a barn on his property that will house dorper lambs, a breed raised for their meat rather than their wool. He plans to get five lambs in the spring and plans rotational grazing that will maximize the quality and quantity of forage growth.

In addition, Grandon will be learning how to raise honeybees and will be given equipment to get started. Work Vessels for Veterans, a nonprofit organization that provides veterans with the necessary tools and equipment to embark upon their civilian careers, will sponsor a beekeeping project and will pay for start-up equipment. The equipment, such as two hives and protective jackets, totals near $3,200 for each veteran taking part in Saturday's beekeeping class. 

"I want to make this happen," Grandon said. "There's nothing like having a sense of responsibility and accountability. What you reap is what you sow. I think the honeybee business will be good for me. My wife is already working on designing something for the honeybees. She's excited too."

Grandon has been married for 25 years and the two have a 3-year-old daughter.

"She has seen the good and the bad," Grandon said. "Farming has changed my life. My wife sees me like she used to see me. I'm excited again. I had nowhere to go until I met James. He has the potential to help so many people. My goal is to get other veterans interested in agriculture or in starting an agriculture-related business."

McCormick said he hopes to take veterans with no agricultural experience and team them up with other veteran farmers to learn basics such as harvesting crops and raising livestock. He currently is doing this at Raising Cane, his 15-acre farm where he grows bamboo and sorghum.

BethAnn Earl is the owner of Noni's Farm, an urban garden near Huntington, and is a veteran as well. She, too, is excited about the veterans-to-agriculture project. McCormick said she will be taking the initiative to educate veterans on growing fresh vegetables for consumption.

"As a farmer, you can't afford to hire people," Tabb said. "Farmers are jacks of all trades. We want to educate veterans on everything from laying water lines, plumbing, carpentry and nutrition.

"West Virginians consume $7.1 billion in food product each year. Less than $1 billion of it comes from producers in the state. This project is an opportunity to produce more food product here in West Virginia. We can raise chicken and pork that can sustain the state. The state's goal is to have a sustainable food supply and we've already seen minimal growth in agricultural activity."

Tabb points to the poultry processing plant in Moorefield that employs nearly 1,500 people. He said the top employer in Hardy County is agriculture, whereas a majority of other counties have their school systems or medical industries as their top employers.

"There's a lot of soil not being utilized in West Virginia," Tabb said. "There's no reason why agriculture can't be the top employer in most of our counties."

The project will offer veteran farmers a logo they can use for their products and/or agribusiness-related items or services that clearly identifies them as a West Virginia veteran farmer. McCormick said a logo is in the works and should be finalized in the coming weeks.

"What soldiers are doing with missiles and mortars overseas makes what we do here possible," McCormick said.

"When it comes to supporting and aiding our veterans, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle come together. We need to make this work. There are veterans who are ready to lie down and die and we are not ready to let them."

For more information, call James McCormick at 304-206-6065 or the West Virginia Department of Agriculture at 304-558-3200.

Contact writer John Gibb at or 304-348-1796.


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