HUNTINGTON - Beekeeping, mushroom planting and agricultural education don't usually come to mind when military veterans come into the conversation, but a new program offered at the Hershel "Woody" Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington is well on its way to ensuring veterans have the chance to grow in ways they haven't before.

The Veterans Affairs Farming and Recovery Mental Health Services (VA FARMS) project is one of 10 pilot programs operating across the country. Teams work in cooperation with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and Marshall University's Social Work Department to provide veteran self-care and family care training, while the Department of Agriculture teaches the agricultural training classes.

The program combines classroom instruction with a variety of hands-on learning activities, with the goal of opening participants' eyes to new ways of getting involved with their community, developing valuable skills and finding new therapeutic ways to handle symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"What we've seen are people that don't know what they are missing. In the process of these classes, they realize a potential they maybe didn't see beforehand," said Fran Burgess, VA Medical Center supervisory vocational rehabilitation specialist. "If we get one veteran who gets something new to do with their life, we've succeeded with this program."

In addition to classroom and hands-on training, each class has a special project it will complete within the six weeks of the course. Participants in the first cycle built and planted raised garden beds, the second cycle's project focused on beekeeping, and participants in the third cycle will create a space to cultivate mushrooms using logs.

Sara Limb, a participant in the program's second cycle, dreams of one day becoming an urban farmer and wants to expand the tiny farming garden she's kept around her house for the past five years.

Through resources made available in the VA FARMS program, she said the dream is closer to becoming a reality.

"If I can feed the neighborhood someday, I will," she said. "I was very lucky to have gotten involved with this pilot program."

Burgess said organizers are pleased to have drawn significant interest in the program during its infancy, but they would be ecstatic to have veterans stick around for more than just one cycle.

"One of the things we're encouraging is to stay engaged in the program. It's by no means the end after six weeks," she said. "We want them to be able to still continue to grow and be involved and maybe even turn (classroom knowledge) into a business of their own one day."

The chance to immediately get plugged in with a local agricultural expert comes at the end of the six-week instruction period. Following the classroom and hands-on activities, participants are given the chance for a two-week internship if they find an area of interest where they'd like to learn or experience more.

"We're offering a broad spectrum of agricultural training, and we're seeing some start to pick up strong interest in one specific agricultural area," Burgess said. "At the end of the six weeks of classes, we attempt to match them with a producer in the region that specializes in their particular interest."

The internship is available to any individual who completes the six-week course, but is not required.

For George McCormick, his specific interest was starting a cattle farm. The desire has been years in the making, he said, after having lived on a 27-acre farm near the Putnam/Cabell county line in Culloden.

His wife was critically injured on her commute to work one morning in an automobile crash that involved a tractor-trailer. The wreck left her in serious condition and she died in May due to lingering health issues from the wreck.

McCormick, a veteran who experiences nervousness and anxiety related to his PTSD, found solace in driving the tractor on his farm.

"I'd spend hours. I'd go out and start in the morning whenever I'd start to feel a bit anxious about things, and by the end of the day I just felt better. It was a way to get away from everything that was going on," he said.

Because of the agro-therapy pilot program, he now has a better idea of what a future on a cattle farm might look like.

"It was very educational. I've learned a lot, things that I hadn't really thought about. I went into it thinking I was going to (start) an Angus beef (farm), but after talking with an instructor, I've decided to do Texas longhorn cattle," said McCormick. "They are very hardy, don't have problems giving birth, and can be included in a heart-healthy diet without a problem because their meat is very lean."

He came across the program by happenstance during a routine visit to the VA for an appointment.

"I really never had paid any attention to the bulletin board, but happened to see a flyer about the program," McCormick said. "So when I noticed it, I thought that seemed like a really cool idea so I contacted Fran (Burgess), told her my story and found out more about the program."

The story likely doesn't end there for McCormick or Limb. One major aspect of the pilot program that will keep it moving forward is regular attendance of both new and recurring class members.

"As long as they'll let me have access to different types of education, then I'll come back," said Limb.

Burgess said the program has the capability to host 10 to 12 individuals per cycle, but the class sizes end up being much smaller, with an average of four participants completing the first two cycles, which requires a commitment of about 20 hours per week.

Classes are held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday on site at the VA Medical Center.

Burgess said she would love to see VA FARMS continue to grow in the area and eventually become a more permanent program.

The program is designed in such a way that balances instructional time with hands-on experience to cater to those who don't want to be sitting in a classroom all day, Burgess said, adding that it's all about learning by experience and "getting hands in the dirt."

"Our hope is that we're able to develop enough infrastructure so that we have something to offer and are able to host (the VA FARMS program) for years to come," Burgess said. "What we have currently is the high tunnel for the raised garden bed, which is beside the healing garden (a brick path with elevated gardening beds) and a walking path that leads to an aviary with active beehives."

The long-term goal, she said, is to have a complete permaculture trail and walking path where veterans can go and be exposed to different types of agriculture.

Veterans interested in the VA FARMS program may contact Burgess at 304-429-6741, ext. 2661.

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