The SAVE Project: Veterans in Transition Find Support and a Place to Call Home on Kansas Farm

Molly Shaw

Recent studies have shown the need for new farmers is pressing. With the average age of farmers creeping into the early 60s and more than 63% of current farms in the hands of older generations, the U.S. needs more than a million new farmers to keep pace with current demand. Meanwhile, there are 1.5 million veterans and more than 800,000 military personnel transitioning from active duty each year. Thanks to organizations such as the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) and newly formed Soldier Agricultural Vocation Education (SAVE) Corporation, more veterans are serving their country twofold; once defending and now feeding America.

SAVE is a pilot project that launched about three years ago to help wounded veterans deal with the mental and physical scars of war. Now a 501c3 public charitable corporation, SAVE is establishing a full-scale educational farm on 200 acres outside of Fort Riley, Kansas.

The reality is more veterans than most can imagine are trying to find meaning in postwar life and many are interested in agriculture. “In a recent poll by the Department of Labor, more than 40% of veterans were interested in careers in farming,” shares Gary LaGrange, president, CEO and one of the founders of SAVE. 

Working to heal the scars of war

LaGrange is no stranger to the tough transition from active duty to daily life. A retired army colonel, LaGrange served 28 years in the military, including two combat tours in Vietnam and a year-and-a-half in Laos. He has dedicated his life to helping other soldiers. “For those struggling with PTSD, anxiety, depression and related illness — mental and physical — there’s great healing to be found on the farm,” he says.

Outside of his military service, LaGrange, who grew up on a farm, has been a commercial beekeeper for a portion of his life and several years ago, he started to connect his agricultural background to his history as a soldier. “My daughter is a psychologist, specializing in PTSD and traumatic brain injury,” says LaGrange. “It was originally her idea to open a farm for the healing benefits. We talked to government and nongovernment agencies to see if there was a need.”

While SAVE was still just a vision, LaGrange attended a conference in Des Moines, Iowa, where he began to learn more about the need for the next generation of farmers. “The Department of Labor poll showing veterans’ interest in farming was a huge factor, so we decided to do a pilot study with the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Riley, where I was a post commander” says LaGrange. “We engaged 38 soldiers at Fort Riley as a test base and with my beekeeping background we began teaching them about commercial beekeeping.”

A vision to full-farm fruition 

The first trial run was a huge success and many of the soldiers went on to pursue careers in commercial beekeeping and horticulture. Today, SAVE produces honey and other locally-grown products cultivated by veterans under the Homegrown by Heroes label.

“After this success, we partnered with Kansas State University and the KSU College of Architecture assisted us in designing a training farm for veterans in transition as a model for all land-grant universities in the country,” says LaGrange.

With the help of KSU, SAVE is in the process of constructing a full-spectrum farm. “We will have orchards, produce gardens and greenhouse space, as well as three high tunnels with hydroponics,” says LaGrange. “We will have a honey production facility with 300 bee hives and soon we’ll move to 500. We’re going to grow wheat, corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, alfalfa and more — all on 10-acre test plots.”

The farm will include full-scale animal agriculture programs in cow-calf operations, swine, equine, poultry, sheep and goats. “In addition, we will have a campus that will house 100 soldiers and their families,” says LaGrange. “We also have various farm shops to teach basic mechanical skills, metal working and welding and also wood working. We have some classrooms for instruction, but for the most part instruction is hands-on. We also have a commercial kitchen where we take the produce we grow and turn it into food to feed students and staff.”

“Any overage will be sold on a pick-your-own basis,” adds LaGrange. For folks looking to buy products close to home, they can shop for honey, meat products and other items made on the farm at a retail store on the campus.

SAVE will open up the educational farm to all veterans, including those with physical disabilities. “We work with Agribility, an organization that takes the lead in designing equipment and facilities so that veterans with disabilities can still work and be an active part of the farm,” says LaGrange.

SAVE also will have a health care clinic on-site, designed with the help of the Veteran’s Administration. “We offer psychological and physical care with clinical psychologists on staff, as well as family and marriage counselors and physical therapists. We’re doing whatever we can to help address the visible and invisible wounds of war,” says LaGrange.

While many final touches are underway and the farm is still a work in progress, LaGrange says the end goal is to have the first class of 100 veteran students starting in January 2018. “We think 100, plus family members, is a good starting point, but we hope to grow that number someday on our site and at all other land-grant universities,” adds LaGrange.

Understanding farming culture

LaGrange says those turning to SAVE come from all walks of life — some who were raised on farms but have been away for some time and others who have little farming experience. “The first groups of soldiers from Fort Riley have helped us draft the business plan. It was important to us to integrate them into the planning and design of SAVE,” says LaGrange.

SAVE has also launched a series of educational tours with 38 students to help veterans discover all of the prospects of a career in agriculture. “We’re touring dozens of farms, big and small and we’ve taken them to 15 different farming agencies, cooperatives, grain manufactures and more,” says LaGrange. “We’re ready to kick off the second round of tours in March 2016 and the Veterans Affairs is joining us.”

An outpour of support

While still in infancy, the word on SAVE is spreading rapidly. “One story was picked up by a broadcast station in Nashville and then our story started to spread all over the country,” says LaGrange.

 LaGrange says he’s been moved by the amount of people reaching out to help. “We’ve reached thousands of Americans and we receive calls every day from people all over the country asking how they can help, offering to give us land or to place a veteran on their farm and help with training — there’s been an outpour of support,” he says.

Word and support for SAVE is also spreading on Capitol Hill. Just a few weeks ago LaGrange presented on SAVE’s progress in the White House to members of the Rural Policy Council, to representatives from the USDA and the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee for Agriculture. “The acceptance was overwhelming and it was a superb outcome overall. I’m invited to speak again to the Appropriations Committee for Agriculture in April 2016, which is a huge step for us in getting the word out and to help secure more funding,” he says.

LaGrange says this is truly touching because he’s had the chance to get to personally know many of the veterans SAVE works with. “They’ve stayed with me and had dinner with my family,” he says. “I’ve seen firsthand how this is a moving, empowering, experience for them and the healing that goes with it.”

“Our soldiers deserve this support,” adds LaGrange. “We’ve asked a lot of them in the last decade. So finding a way to welcome them back to our communities and help them find quality, productive lifestyles — that’s something we owe to them.”

The hope is that more land-grant universities across the country will follow in the SAVE Project’s footsteps, creating a place for wounded and transitioning veterans to build meaningful careers, better postwar lives and contentment on the farm.

To learn about opportunites or to donate to the SAVE project, contact the organization here.