Rebirth and Renewal on an Urban Farm
"What happens when you put an Arab, hippy, pacifist and a bunch of armed ex-military together on a bucolic farm?"
"We get our hands in the dirt, and it makes us happy."
On a brilliant May morning last year I went to visit my long-time friend, Hyiat El-Jundi (the aforementioned Muslim, hippy pacifist) in her new life as a farmer in Desoto, Texas just south of Downtown Dallas. It was one of those idyllic spring mornings with a hot sun and a cool breeze. She met us out in the lettuce field where rainbow chard, wild arugula, mustard greens, and giant heads of Tuscan kale, were exploding.
Here she told us about F.A.R.M or Farmers Assisting Returning Military, a non-profit farm dedicated to rehabilitating veterans struggling to transition back into civilian life. Almost all of the participants are veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and with the internship program they also receive workshops on animal husbandry, sustainable farming, or owning your own business. This, coupled with occupational therapy, advocacy, and the regimented lifestyle of the farm can be invaluable for a soldier trying to reintegrate. But the heart of the rehabilitation is Dirt Therapy, literally getting your hands in the dirt. Studies have found that a strain of bacterium in soil triggers the release of serotonin in the brain which can elevate mood and relieve anxiety. The honest, hard labor of cultivating land, caring for animals, and feeding the community can bring an incredible sense of purpose for anyone, but especially for vets struggling to fit back in. As co-founder, James Jeffers explained to me, going from defending the country to feeding the country is a "good fit."
Awesome indeed. Predominately a vegetable farm, the sheer abundance of this completely organic, pesticide free, 15 acre farm was impressive to say the least. Hyiat showed us fat tilapia swimming around in tanks of water that both irrigate and fertilize the land in a system known as aquaponics. Roosters roamed free, and a few hogs waded in a pond.
Bees yielded jars of famed Texas honey, and beautiful pea shoots were flourishing in their greenhouse. I love pea shoots, there's nothing quite as delicate and "green" tasting as a pea tendril.
But as with all things that bring life, death loomed on the farm. A donkey brayed with a sorrow so profound, it pierced your heart. Hyiat informed us that twelve goats were recently slaughtered by a pack of ferrel dogs that were still at large. The donkey had grown up with the goats and her job was to watch over them. She had lost her keep in an horrific act of violence and was in a state of mourning. That this should happen on a farm run by armed and expertly trained soldiers did not bode well for the dogs. Plans were being devised, and an all out attack on the animals was imminent. The cycle of death and rebirth was on incredible display.
In the end, I took home bunches of blood red beets, bouquets of rainbow chard, and bags of peppery nasturtium flowers. That I would be making a feast of flowers from a farm run by veterans of our most brutal wars, was not lost on me. I recalled the famous Flower Power photo from Kent State, and had a bittersweet revelation: when a soldier on the brink can remake themselves into a farmer there is hope, but also the cycle of violence was as much a part of our nature as the slaughtered goats.
I went back to visit Hyiat on the farm a year later, and found it in less than idyllic conditions. F.A.R.M was due to lose their lease. The land owners were raising the rent, and the main house had a dire mold situation. Due to the uncertainty of when they’d have to uproot, or if they’d even have a place to go, they were behind on the planting season. Furthermore, the mold situation forced some to move out, and it destroyed the greenhouse. There were none of the pea shoots or sunflower sprouts, that not only I loved, but were a major source of income as they were sold to local chefs. Nothing tastes as joyful and delicate and hopeful as pea tendrils, and their absence seemed to me ominous. But Hyiat was incredibly optimistic! They were actively looking for new farmland, while also building a smaller urban farm in downtown. They had just been selected to partner with Carry the Load, a prominent organization dedicated to honoring and memorializing veterans. And the farm was boasting its own beautiful signs of rebirth. Where there had been a graveyard of goats, now adorable baby lambs romped under a huge elm, and a whole litter of heritage hogs merrily nursed their mama.
A couple of vets even showed off their Ketchup 'n' Fries plant. A futuristic, grafted hybrid that yields tomatoes on top and potatoes on the bottom. What struck me, was the unwavering conviction everyone had that F.A.R.M would carry on even if they lost the land.
The day after my visit, Hyiat showed up to our spades game (more on that intense rivalry at another date) with a ragged little puppy in a box. She'd visited a property in Seagoville, a suburb just east of downtown. 200 promising acres with a water source that would be perfect for F.A.R.M. She'd found the puppy alone, near death, on the edge of the tract. Hyiat adopted her on the spot and named her Lucky.
Lucky has lived up to her namesake because the deal went through. F.A.R.M now has a new home. They have begun the painstaking work of uprooting and replanting. I have no doubt that given the mission, these vets, some of America's best and brightest, are up to the task. That they should do it alongside a tenacious, bad ass Arab American woman is a proof of a healthier, and probably tastier future.