Swords into food security

David Briggs
Army specialist Mike Walgrave, a Wisconsin native, clears brush at Star Route Farms in Boli- nas, where he began a six-month internship in October as part of the new Marin Veteran Project.
02/07/2013

Freedom means everything to Mike Walgrave. Freedom is why he chose to major in philosophy in college. It’s why he chose to travel when that degree didn’t quite pay off. And freedom is why he decided to join the Army too, “out of respect for the sacrifices” others made for his freedom.

“Don’t have any wife or kids, nothing holding me down, I got my health still, and what the heck,” Mr. Walgrave explained. “Put the name on the line for the country. You know, I’m a big fan of the values they got here in the Constitution, and I understand that I’m going to be probably part of the killing force and so you know what, you can sign me up for infantry, because now you have a chance to kill me too, I guess, to keep it fair.”

After returning from what he calls a “15-month workweek” lugging mortar equipment, delivering grain and building schools in a rugged province north of Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, the retired Army specialist found his next path: harvesting for peace.

For six months, Mr. Walgrave will work at the 100-acre Star Route Farms in Bolinas as part of a new project launched by the nonprofit Farmer Veteran Coalition and funded by a $105,000 grant from the San Francisco Foundation. The Marin Veteran Project, run by Mill Valley organic-food advocate and radio host Helge Hellberg, plans to place three other veterans on Marin County organic farms.

“It’s a much-needed and powerful transition for someone that comes out of the military,” Michael O’Gorman, founder of the Davis-based Farmer Veteran Coalition, said in a telephone interview. “I do not see it as charity. I don’t see it as rehabilitation. That assumes that the person’s broken. I see it as matching two opportunities.

There’s just something that’s greater than one plus one when we put [farming and veterans] together.”

The coalition provides training, financial support, career counseling and lobbying for veterans looking to transition into agriculture. Mr. O’Gorman, a lifelong farmer, was inspired by the service of his own son, who joined the Coast Guard and served two years after the September 11 attacks.

“I didn’t go into this with a military background—I was part of a generation that tended not to be supportive of the veterans because many times we weren’t supportive of policies of the government,” he said. “I thought swords to plowshares was something political, anti-war.”

Instead, Mr. O’Gorman said, he was struck by the industry, physicality, accountability, service-mindedness, results-orientation and idealism of people like Mr. Walgrave. He now understands food production to be intimately related to armed services: “The security of our nation, both globally and economically, is going to depend in our lifetime on having a healthy food system.”

Mr. Walgrave said his experience in Afghanistan led him to feel the same way. “From a liberty/freedom standpoint, you can’t have it if all your food is coming from one individual, or one corporation, or just a central person that calls all the shots,” he said. In Afghanistan, if you didn’t like the tribal elder who controlled your area, “you kinda had to go along with the plan if you wanted to eat.”

“Democracy only works because we’ve got this farming wealth—we’ve got this excess of food—that’s what this country is based on,” he added. “That and sound philosophical ideas.”

Mr. O’Gorman believes the program has the potential to be especially potent in Marin: “[T]he most popular and exciting thing going on in Marin is all the farms. It wasn’t when I started to farm; now it’s becoming very chic.”

Still, the appeal of farming hasn’t instantly resonated with San Francisco Bay Area veterans. Francesca Vietor of the San Francisco Foundation said that the requirements of family prevent most veterans from considering farming, most of which happens in somewhat remote locations, as a viable option. “It’s going to take a special vet with a vision,” Ms. Vietor said.

Mr. Walgrave has an affable, contemplative and straightforward manner, and a Northern Iowa-Wisconsin drawl. His approach to life bears some uncanny resemblances to Mark Twain, whose writing he admires.

“He paints Hannibal, Missouri well,” Mr. Walgrave said of Twain. “He’s a small-town guy from bumble-F nowhere on the river and he became this global citizen.”

In pursuit of global citizenship, Mr. Walgrave’s approach to life has been a model of peripatetic whimsy, from joining the military and serving in Italy and Afghanistan to sailing down the Mississippi River with a group of friends in a raft emblazoned with the peace symbol. “Drifting for peace,” they called it. After the 14-week rafting trip, he traveled to Oregon, took a class in permaculture and ignited an interest in sustainable
farming.

Now the 37-year-old is single and lives in a travel trailer adjacent to the vegetable plot and the workaday shanties where other farm employees live. “They hooked me up with that Trailblazer,” he said as he toured a reporter around the farm on Monday. “Pretty sweet, definitely. That’s home right there.”

The work is challenging—weeding nettles, harvesting Dinosaur kale and baby radishes, and taking products to market—but “it’s nothing a person that was in the military and went through boot camp can’t handle.”

Though Mr. Walgrave earned a second Bachelor’s degree, in agricultural economics, he finds that his coworkers’ expertise and efficiency dwarf his own. And, speaking minimal Spanish, he often resorts to pantomime in communicating with them. “These guys are all master harvesters,” he said. “They’ve been doing the job for anywhere from five to 15 to 20 years, so their efficiency—they’re running circles around me.” He says his dexterity, fitness and even guitar-playing skills have improved since he started the internship in October.

Mr. Walgrave observes, takes notes, records video, and then digs in himself. He also asks questions of Warren Weber, who started the farm in 1974.

“Even Warren’s like, ‘I don’t have anything to teach you,’ and it’s like, ‘I learn more about organic farming just chatting with you in 15 minutes than I did in the previous five years so you know, this has been a great education being out here and doing it definitely gives your mind and body something to wrap itself around,’” Mr. Walgrave said.

It’s working out well for Mr. Weber, too. “It’s a good program, it’s a good idea, and I think he’s getting something out of it, and he’s a nice addition,” he said by phone. “He’s adapted pretty well.”

When he completes the program, Mr. Walgrave could be eligible for a low-interest loan from the United States Department of Agriculture to start his own operation.

Mr. Walgrave is optimistic about what farming can do for him, other veterans and the world at large. “This is the right path for me,” he said. “This is definitely homeland security and helping do my part for the country by getting out here and start chatting it up about plants. It’s probably that simple… I really feel like if there’s a revolution that happens it’s going to be the food revolution and that’s the only way we’re going to be able to probably get peace.”