The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Veterans Farm

Veterans Farm

From the Farmer's Tractor

May 28, 2012

Adam Burke, 34, is the CEO and Founder of Veterans Farm, a 13-acre handicap accessible farm for disabled veterans. Located in Jacksonville, Florida, the farm provides horticulture therapy for returning combat veterans. It also teaches veterans how to grow organic fruits and vegetables. After the six-month fellowship program, veterans are provided the resources to work for larger farming organizations or to start their own farms. Burke was awarded the Purple Heart for his time in Iraq.

How did you get into farming?

I grew up on a farm, but didn’t appreciate it as a child. Pulling weeds out of the blueberries in 90-degree weather here in Florida was not a fun venture for a young boy. I left farming to join the Army in 1995. I served nine years as an Infantry squad leader. During that time I obtained my BA in business and had plans to work in corporate America. Those plans changed after 16 months fighting the War in Iraq where I was injured in a mortar attack. After coming home I needed something to help get my life back on track and to help recover from my injuries. The answer for me was farming. I started the Veterans Farm in 2010 to not only help me, but to help other soldiers and marines who were coming back and suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder.

How have your farming practices changed over the last two years?

Learning to build a farm that is handicap accessible is not an easy task. We were and still are pioneers in the treatment of veterans with farming. There was not a whole lot of subject matter out there to read and learn about this before we started, so we had to make our mistakes in the beginning and learn from them. Over the past two years we've made changes to how we grow our crops on elevated beds, planter boxes and container growing to make harvesting easier for veterans in wheelchairs. We are also following organic practices now which is something I never learned growing up.

How will farming evolve in the next five years?

I believe we'll see our "Next Greatest Generation" of veterans start to move into farming as being in the outdoors and having that spiritual connection with the land will help with their healing. It also will give them a new mission in life and that is to help fill the gap of aging farmers in this country. I believe we'll start to see more smaller farms start to pop up, while new sustainable techniques, organic practices and conservation will move higher on these new farmers’ priority lists.

What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?

Being a farmer is challenging enough. Add the fact that we are a veteran charity who has to raise funds to provide the farming resources for our veterans, training a new group of veterans every six months how to farm, taking care of their needs – both physical and mental – and creating awareness in the community about the importance of buying local. With that said, the biggest challenge is finding time for my family.

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

I don't think figuring out what the retailer will want from our farm a year from now is difficult. The difficult part is figuring out what the retailer is willing to pay for our product, because that can change in the matter of days. There are so many outside factors that can play a role in market prices and the big one is "supply and demand." If we don't get our blueberries to market in early April, we can guarantee that Georgia will flood the market come May, which will bring the prices so low that we couldn't afford to even pick them.

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

We use drip irrigation instead of an overhead irrigation system. This helps reduce runoff and water usage. We've also started composting to recycle our waste and to turn it into organic fertilizer. Our future goal is to get off the grid and to run the farm off of solar and wind energy. This is expensive so we are hoping that a big donor may come in and donate towards this.

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

We are currently selling our blueberries and peppers here locally. We will also have fresh tilapia for sale soon. We sell at local farmer markets, and different retail stores.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

Quote, "I thought you'd be older!”, is what people usually say. Most people are very supportive and are more amazed with our mission and how our concept has thrived. Our Horticulture therapy program to treat veterans is truly a "Prescription without Medication."

Learn more about Veterans Farm here: http://veteransfarm.org.