Veteran creates S.A.V.E. Farm to help wounded service members

Gary LaGrange, president of the Soldier Agricultural Vocational Education Farm, teaches Dakota Henderson, a specialist from Fort Riley, how to harvest honey at the Sunset Zoo on March 29, 2016. (Emily Starkey | The Collegian)

Gary LaGrange, Manhattan resident and Army retiree, said his dream for the S.A.V.E. Farm, or Soldier Agricultural Vocational Education Farm, began with his daughter, Shari LaGrange-Aulich, who is in her final year of studying clinical psychology at Washburn University.

The location of the farm is still unknown, but it will be nearly 1,500 acres and will incorporate all aspects of agriculture, from growing crops to keeping livestock to beekeeping, and its purpose is to help wounded veterans transition into a career in agriculture, LaGrange said.

LaGrange-Aulich said she has always been fascinated with bees and asked her dad to start a program for soldiers where they could keep bees and be active in the process of beekeeping.

“I love being outside and find the world of bees captivating and requiring many emotional regulation skills that go hand in hand with healing PTS, such as being patient, staying calm in the midst of angry bees, working slow, being alone and quiet,” LaGrange-Aulich said. “It is all calming, focused and healing.”

LaGrange-Aulich said she felt called to help soldiers suffering from combat-related trauma because of her father’s military background and her personal relationships with military families.

LaGrange-Aulich said her piece of the S.A.V.E. Farm puzzle will be the clinic and wellness center. Her plan is to hire psychologists and offer individual and group therapy using a variety of therapy methods that include art and music therapy, occupational, physical and horticultural therapy, marriage and family therapy, and much more.

“We want soldiers to have access to the clinic while residing on the farm and receive treatment while they are receiving vocational farm training,” LaGrange-Aulich said. “Post-traumatic growth fits really well into the farm concept. How we can grow in a positive manner from a traumatic experience? The clinic will operate just as a normal clinic does. It will be funded by insurance proceeds. The (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) is fully behind our approach.”

The farming aspect is highlighted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s call for a million farmers within the next 10 years to meet the demand to keep independent, sustainable farms alive, LaGrange-Aulich said.

“It seems like a win-win way to meet the demand for farmers and find employment for veterans,” LaGrange-Aulich said. “PTS and brain injuries don’t necessarily create people who want to work in corporate environments. Some may wish to own their own farm, be independent and move from a career that involved destruction to one that is cultivating life. Soldiers are also no strangers to hard work and flexibility with the changing demands of farm life.”

Deb Tangari, a VA health nurse in Topeka, has worked with veterans since 2007. In her line of work, Tangari said the median age of the veterans she counsels is 25, and their biggest hurdle to overcome is transitioning from the military.

While the VA offers resources such as help with resumes, business and home loans, and medical and educational benefits, Tangari said there is still a need for programs like the S.A.V.E. Farm to give the nation’s wounded veterans a way to make money and to feel like they have a meaningful contribution to society.

“Translating that into civilian life and a civilian career and managing civilian relationships is very challenging,” Tangari said. “The missing link is being able to get these people to work.”

K-State’s part in the S.A.V.E. Farm

In 1863, K-State was the first college in the nation to become a fully operational land-grant university. Kerri Ebert, extension assistant for K-State’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, said part of K-State’s land-grant mission is to have a research and extension service that provides a link between the practical applications of its research to people in the community.

Ebert said under the land-grant provision, a publicly funded university has to partner with a nonprofit organization.

Ebert said she also coordinates the Kansas AgrAbility Project, which provides safety education and technical assistance to farmers with disabilities.

“The piece that AgrAbility can bring to the table is that we work with any farmer who has a limitation, and we have a focus on veterans and transitioning soldiers who are either going back home to farm or want to start a farm,” Ebert said. “(AgrAbility helps) them choose a type of farming that won’t exacerbate their limitations, but also, we would bring a farm safety component, keeping them safe from secondary injuries.”

Ebert and volunteer soldiers built an unheated greenhouse, or high tunnel, near the Warrior Transition Battalion building on Ft. Riley as a way to introduce gardening as therapy for the wounded soldiers.

“There was one soldier, who got discharged now, he was really interested,” Ebert said. “He said, ‘I’ve been watching you guys do this out the window of my room. I have all these plants I want.’ I said, ‘We’ve got raised beds out there. Start filling up the beds. Just plant. Be happy.’ And he did. He got some carrots growing.”

And while the process of building the S.A.V.E. Farm is still several years away, graduate students from the College of Architecture, Planning and Design are designing the farm.

Vibhavari Jani, associate professor of interior architecture and product design, said she started working on projects centered around wounded warrior issues in 2010. Jani said her department has created a variety of prototypes for rehabilitation designs to accommodate the needs of wounded veterans.

Jani said she met LaGrange two years ago and now coaches her graduate students as they design the farm and rehabilitation center for the S.A.V.E. Farm.

“Now, we are focused on this farmer training and healing center, which actually requires the understanding of the rehabilitation needs of the soldiers, so that research that we had done — all the data collection for it — is very useful now because now this is a real clinic that they are designing,” Jani said.

Jani said she and several students have been working for the last five years doing research, which is coming into play now in developing different spaces for the veterans to use.

Designing the S.A.V.E. Farm exposes the design students to the world of veterans’ affairs and teaches the students skills that cannot be taught when producing conventional architectural designs, Jani said.

“It all generates empathy,” Jani said. “That is something you can’t teach, but you can put them in a situation where they learn themselves.”

Building funds

LaGrange said transitioning veterans interested in learning an agricultural vocation at the S.A.V.E. Farm will be able to use their GI Bill and tuition assistance to pay for their education.

They will also receive a stipend for their work on the farm.

“We have drilled this down pretty well, and it is absolutely doable,” LaGrange said. “Income from the clinic will go a long way in subsidizing some of the costs, so we can keep tuition to a minimum. Farm sales will also contribute substantially. About 60 percent will come with a disability retirement income also. Organizations like the Farmer Veteran Coalition and Farm Bureau offer scholarships, and we will help soldiers and vets pursue them.”

LaGrange said the plan also includes educating the veterans on farm business planning, agricultural economics and learning firsthand how to run a successful operation by working on farms.

“The program is called the Patriot Project,” LaGrange said. “I have met with their national coordinator, and they are working with us as we refine our business plan.”

Donald Downey and John Ulrick, LaGrange’s former apprentice beekeepers, said they are committed to the S.A.V.E. Farm concepts they learned while at the Warrior Transition Battalion.

Downey said he is now doing an internship with the VA in Des Moines, Iowa. He is also in the process of taking agricultural safety and fire inspection classes, certifications he will use to help with the S.A.V.E. Farm when it is up and running.

“The S.A.V.E. Farm is like law enforcement to protect and preserve life and property,” Downey said. “We preserve the agricultural field by getting vets into the farming community, also preserving a new way of life for the service member. And you’re protecting the existence of agriculture by serving as a farmer. Serving as a farmer gives you a sense of purpose and satisfaction.”

Ulrick said he is currently working on his 280-acre farm in Minnesota, and his future plans include managing the S.A.V.E. Farm when it opens.

“There’s been talk about me possibly being their farm manager,” Ulrick said. “I guess that would be a big responsibility once they get that program launched.”

LaGrange said there is a lot of money needed to build the S.A.V.E. Farm.

When he’s away from the Warrior Transition Battalion soldiers, LaGrange said he is advocating for farmer veterans as the vice president of the newly formed Farmer Veteran Coalition-Kansas chapter and is briefing congressmen, the VA and other key figures in Washington, D.C.

“During discussions in Washington, D.C., with congressional staffers and the deputy undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, I asked for assistance in obtaining the necessary developmental funds to move forward,” LaGrange said.

LaGrange said he will need the funds to hire an architectural firm and finalize the design by K-State. Also, he will use the funds to hire instructors and consultants for the program.