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Q&A: Filmmaker, ASU official say military vets should feed next generation

Documentary 'Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields' precedes panel discussion on strengthening local food system

December 06, 2016

In response to census reports that showed America would need a massive influx of farmers and ranchers in the coming years, filmmaker Dulanie Ellis created a documentary that calls for military veterans to fill the job.

Ellis says vets — especially those returning from combat — are uniquely suited to take on the challenge of feeding a growing nation that is losing farmers and ranchers to retirement and urbanization.

She says the U.S. Agriculture Department has called for 1 million new farmers and ranchers and that service members are ready to fill the gap — they just need the right training.

Her film, “Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields,” has made the rounds since its completion four years ago, but Sidney Lines, coordinator for ASU’s Sustainability Connect and Food Systems Transformation Initiative, says it’s as relevant as ever ahead of a screening and panel discussion at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Irish Cultural Center in downtown Phoenix.

The event, ASU Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement and the Pat Tillman Veterans Center, is open to the public and tickets are $10. Proceeds will benefit three advocacy groups that support military, farming and job training.

Here’s what Ellis and Lines had to say (answers lightly edited for length):

Question: Can you explain the concept behind “Ground Operations?”

Dulanie Ellis: There are two different problems that have a common solution. One of the challenges we face as a country we have about 2 to 2.5 million vets who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and many of them are coming back and need to find meaningful work. With that are high suicide rates, loss of purpose, loss of mission … The other problem is that we have a whole generation of farmers that are at retirement age, and they need replacements … When you put those two together, they take care of the other’s need.

Sidney Lines: The film examines two seemingly disparate issues: a need for more farmers and a large number of veterans returning from war. It creates a scenario that could provide a single, intersecting solution for each by bringing veterans into farming. … The physical act of getting their hands in the ground and tilling the earth has a calming, healing effect on them and helps reduce the effects of their Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. What I would personally love to see is a joint program where the Department of Defense, Veterans Administration, and United States Dairy Association pair returning veterans with local farmers in an apprentice-style program, where vets work with a farmer to gain the necessary knowledge and skills, and then go off to start their own farm or perhaps activate some of the vacant, urban lots we have around the Valley to grow food while reducing the number of food deserts.

Q: I didn’t realize there is a shortage based on the fact that corporations seem to have farming covered.

DE: While it is true that corporate farming is growing all of the commodity crops — your corn, your soy, your wheat — there is a desire from the American public to consume locally grown nutrients in food that is spurring a huge resurgence in local farming. In terms of vegetables, you lose your nutrient density the farther it travels and is stored for long periods of time. Furthermore, corporate is depleting their soil through the use of chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides, and they’re diminishing the capacity of the land to produce good food. We’re seeing a huge surge in this, and the biggest shift is in urban agriculture, which is the new face of agriculture.

SL: There are a few things happening here. The latest USDA census data show that our farmers are getting older and that we are not replacing them. The average American farmer is 58 years old, a number that has been increasing for the past 30 years, and at the same time the number of beginning farmers is decreasing. Additionally, migrant workers play a huge role in our food system. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that more than half of U.S. farm workers are undocumented. Even with increased wages and better working conditions, farmers are still having a hard time finding skilled American farm workers. Returning veterans could be one answer to this problem.

Q: How did you come to the conclusion that vets want to become farmers?

SL: Aside from the healing effects I mentioned earlier, some of the veterans in the film talk about education, specifically, and how it is difficult to come home from conflict and assimilate in a classroom full of students who have very different lived experiences from them. It can be very hard for veterans to transition from a highly stressful, very regimented lifestyle in a conflict zone to a university classroom, and this inevitably keeps some of them from completing a university education.

The ASU Pat Tillman Veterans Center is working diligently and successfully to assist with that transition and support veteran students as they navigate their academic careers. ... The future of farming is going to need to face complex challenges like climate change, water scarcity, booming populations, and a whole slew of issues that will require new technologies, creative innovations, and sustainable solutions. ASU is ripe for this kind of research and discovery.

DE: Farming is a highly complex and challenging career and because the GI Bill will cover vets wanting to go college, many are coming back. We want them to see this film so they know farming is an option to them. Many college-educated vets have gone into corporate America and have been so thoroughly dissatisfied with that experience and have turned to farming and ranching because it’s more satisfying to them. They like the challenge and they want to be outside, not stuck in a cubicle.

Q: What does this documentary propose? Or what questions does it pose? And what answers does it offer?

SL: I’ll just say that the documentary asks, “How can we better serve our returning veterans, utilizing their unique set of skills, while creating a more sustainable food system for all?” If you want the answer you’ll have to come watch the film and listen to the panel discussion.

DE: We’re starting to get the data on the therapeutic effects of farming on veterans through a couple of studies. A national study that interviewed over 700 veterans show a 65 to 70 percent improvement with PTSD, reduction of meds, greater sense of mission, less depression and anxiety, better ability to integrate with the public. It’s across the board. We knew it worked but now there’s specificity about why it works.

Photo from "Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields" courtesy of Dulanie Ellis .