Local veteran helps other veterans through beekeeping

Gary LaGrange, Manhattan resident and retired Army colonel, is the president of the Soldier Agricultural Vocational Education Farm. LaGrange teaches Warrior Transition Battalion soldiers beekeeping, how to feed bees and harvest the honey. (Emily Starkey | The Collegian)

Manhattan resident and retired Army Col. Gary LaGrange was once a garrison commander at Fort Riley. Now, he is a master beekeeper in Manhattan with a dream to help wounded veterans become farmers.

About two years ago, LaGrange started a pilot program with the Warrior Transition Battalion on Fort Riley, he said.

Warrior Transition Battalions “provide personalized support to wounded, ill and injured soldiers who require at least six months of rehabilitative care and complex medical management,” according to the “Warrior Transition Units” page of the Warrior Transition Command’s website.

Some of the soldiers in the Warrior Transition Battalion are transitioning out of the Army back to civilian life.

LaGrange said he spent two tours in Vietnam, one tour in Laos in a special operations unit and retired from a 28-year career in the Army.

“There probably hasn’t been a day where I haven’t flashbacked or thought of those things that occurred over there, and they’re not always pleasant,” LaGrange said. “It just seemed to me that I felt an obligation to help these folks out, knowing what they’ve experienced, knowing the demons that they are confronted with.”

LaGrange said he met with Jill Sump, a Warrior Transition Battalion occupational therapist, who oversees his pilot program.

After LaGrange spoke with Sump about the therapeutic benefits of working with bees, they started building on the idea of introducing agriculture to transitioning service members.

“Some of the soldiers were interested in getting into some type of an agriculture career when they transitioned out,” Sump said. “So we worked with (LaGrange) to help set up about 25 different agriculture tours in the area so that the soldiers can be exposed to all sorts of different operations. We had these tours and then from there, a couple people were interested specifically in the beekeeping and so that’s how we started an internship. (LaGrange) was willing to mentor those individuals in addition to giving them resources for education.”

Stages of the beekeeping internship

LaGrange said he works with Warrior Transition Battalion soldiers interested in beekeeping two or three times a week, teaching them how to feed bees and harvest honey. The beekeeping internship is set up in three stages: apprenticeship, journeyman and master in beekeeping.

Apprentice-level beekeeping is an understanding of beekeeping, learning to work with bees and how to manage them at a basic level, LaGrange said.

Journeyman-level beekeeping is learning to understand and diagnose the diseases bees carry and how to treat them, LaGrange said. At this level, he teaches soldiers how to process honey, propolis and beeswax. The veterans are also taught the commercial standards at which honey is processed, properly bottled and labeled.

LaGrange said he intends to teach the master beekeeping level once his dream farm is operational. This stage goes into great detail on the marketing of products of the hives and provides extensive knowledge about large beekeeping operations that range from a minimum of 300 bee colonies to many thousands of bee colonies. Students at this level will learn in further detail the anatomy of the bee and to diagnose under a microscope all of the various diseases and conditions that bees can have.

S.A.V.E. Farm

The pilot program that provides these veterans with beekeeping internships with the Warrior Transition Battalion is the seed of what is to come, LaGrange said.

LaGrange said his ultimate dream is to build a farm and rehabilitation center for wounded veterans to learn every aspect of agriculture through a program he calls the S.A.V.E. Farm, or Soldier Agricultural Vocational Education Farm.

LaGrange intends for the farm to include a center with classrooms, housing for veterans, a clinic, a chapel, sheds for farming equipment, a metalworking shop, a commercial kitchen, 30 acres of crops and barns for livestock. The farm will also include a welcoming center for the public to purchase vegetables, fruit, honey and other products the veterans will make on the farm.

“That is the major effort that we have underway, and it’s going to take us several years to do that,” LaGrange said. “But we have a fairly extensive business plan that is being refined every day and we’re well on the way.”

LaGrange said his goal for the farm is to take wounded veterans who want to transition into a career in agriculture and fill the ranks of farmers who will retire in the next 20 years.

The majority of current farmland is owned by farmers who are over the age of 55, and half of all current farmers will likely retire in the next decade, according to the Center for Rural Affairs.

“Over this next decade and a half, we need a million farmers,” LaGrange said. “And now with a million and half veterans and 800,000 transitioning military, we have a golden opportunity to help those that are wanting to get into agriculture get there, to train them in farming so that they can take over farms that are soon to go out of the family.”

Over the last two years, LaGrange said he and the wounded veterans he mentors in beekeeping have produced 5,400 pounds of honey from the 43 hives LaGrange manages throughout Manhattan. The soldiers bottle the honey, and so far, their honey sales have grossed about $35,000.

The honey is called Golden Prairie Honey Farms and LaGrange said it is currently the S.A.V.E. Farm’s main source of income.

“Dollars are all used to take care of the bees, sustain the bees, and I also use some of the dollars to provide books to soldiers, to provide some equipment to soldiers, to also help pay the lunches that we require when we do farm tours,” LaGrange said. “So it all goes back into the soldiers’ program. I tell the soldiers that those are their bees and their beehives.”

LaGrange impacts veterans’ lives

In October 2015, two soldiers from the Warrior Transition Battalion, retired Army Sgt. Donald Downey and retired Army Chief Warrant Officer John Ulrick, were learning about beekeeping with LaGrange during their transition from long careers in the Army. Both soldiers are over the age of 50, and both have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“(LaGrange) actually was a life saver because he was the one that actually gave me direction, focus and stability, or helped me get that with beekeeping and farming,” Downey said. “He was actually a mentor to me, especially with veterans with PTSD— they need a mentor, somebody that they can talk to and vent to and just release to, and not be judged or criticized for what they have.”

In the Army, Downey was a military policeman, an artilleryman and a chaplain’s assistant, but he said he was medically retired from the Army after 15 years of service due to arthritis and a condition known as vasovagal syncope, which causes blackouts. He said both conditions prevented him from continuing his career as a soldier.

While at the Warrior Transition Battalion, Ulrick said he had worked with LaGrange for over a year when Downey joined them.

“It was kind of difficult because I’m a senior guy, and I just turned 60 years old,” Ulrick said. “I met (LaGrange) 18 months ago or two years ago, and we kind of hit it off.”

Ulrick retired after almost 33 years of service, a transition he said he was not ready to make. He said he met LaGrange at the Warrior Transition Battalion while spending a year recovering from neck surgery for an injury he sustained in Afghanistan.

During his career in the Army, Ulrick said he served in a special operations unit as a mechanical engineer and helicopter pilot.

“I was a warrior,” Ulrick said. “I was a special operations guy and all I wanted to do is track down bad guys. There’s a time that comes in your life when you can’t do that anymore. I have a lot of experience with equipment and livestock and those types of things. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. (LaGrange) also shared with me some of his own experience as far as what it was like for him to do his own transition and so it did make it easier for me.”

Read more about Ulrick and LaGrange’s experience in Thursday’s Collegian and online