Brandon Nehilla, a retired Army medic who specialized in combat stress control, gets his joy from gardening. But living in the urban environment of Houston, he found it challenging for his hard work to be fruitful. It’s tough, he says, to find affordable land that hasn’t been contaminated and has workable soil.

He’s hoping the Growing Urban Farmers education program, which he joined in October, will change all that.

Already he’s seen changes, and in ways he couldn’t have predicted. Nehilla says that he’s found his farming classes to be the best therapy he’s ever had for his PTSD.

Growing Urban Farmers teaches veterans and others how to become professional urban farmers. For twelve weeks, each cohort meets at Hope Farms, a seven-acre property in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Houston, to learn the trade.

Some graduates go on to work as commercial growers who sell their stock at food stands around town; some homestead, growing only enough food to feed their families; and others apply their knowledge to careers in grocery stores and restaurants.

The goal is to make farming a potential career. “A person with the skills and capacity, work ethic, and commitment can pull a fifty-thousand-dollar net income off of less than three acres,” says Gracie Cavnar, the founder of Recipe for Success Foundation, Hope Farms’ nonprofit parent.

But sometimes the mental health benefits of being outside, working the land, building camaraderie with fellow students and customers, and running one’s own business mean even more. Research indicates that farming can be profoundly useful—both physically and behaviorally—as veterans transition to civilian life. It is a way for veterans to utilize the traits inherent in the military, such as a sense of duty, discipline, and a desire to do something for the greater good. And it’s a path that can provide freedom and autonomy, something many veterans crave.

“I’ve seen in my personal life with friends and my husband, who is also a veteran, the trauma associated with extended periods of institutionalism, being controlled, and having to answer to someone,” says Ashly Tamayo, a Navy veteran and the director of education at Recipe for Success Foundation. “The common theme, especially for sailors trapped on a vessel, is once they get out, they don’t want to be inside anymore.”

By his ninth day of classes, Nehilla was ecstatic to spend time at the Hope Farms garden, helping to harvest other farmers’ eggplants, squash, radishes, and bok choy. He is even more excited at the prospect of working his own plot of land and making his own choices about what to plant.

He has started to pass his knowledge along to his wife, Jasmine, and their six-year-old son, Percival, who calls his dad’s program “farmer college.” And he’s looking forward to participating in the program’s master classes, which include courses on topics ranging from pollinating and beekeeping to branding and marketing.

“But it’s therapeutic more than anything,” Nehilla says.

As for his future career plans, Nehilla says he wants “to be able to produce good, whole food for my family and my community. I want to put a dent in all the food deserts that exist in urban communities.”

He already has some footsteps he can follow to reach that goal.

Army veteran Oriana Franklin was a member of the second cohort of Growing Urban Farmers, which graduated in 2020. She completed an entire year, including master classes that covered everything from budgeting and seasonal crop planning to crafting a comprehensive marketing plan.

In the last three years she has built her own business, Franklin Farm, at a plot she cultivates near the University of Houston. There she grows herbs, kale, mustard greens, chard, beets, okra, squash, eggplant, cucumbers, and other seasonal vegetables that she sells on-site and at farmers markets, such as Hope Farms’ weekly Saturday market.

Franklin also gets requests from homeowners in Kashmere Gardens and Third Ward to clear their unused land and help them get started setting up their own gardens. Sometimes residents are elderly or physically limited, so Franklin recruits fellow veterans from throughout Houston to join her on these missions. They volunteer their time to transform backyards so the residents can produce their own food.  

“We farmers have our own society,” Franklin says. “We all know each other, especially if we’re veterans. We swap advice and stories, visit and observe each other’s farms, and since there is no precise way to farm, we share a lot of good ideas.”

According to Tamayo, a lot of veterans who take part in the program come seeking empowerment and self-reliance outside of traditional office walls. “Farming provides a healthy way to respond to trauma,” she says. “Being outside gives them a three-hundred-sixty-degree view of the world.”

And the benefits of being in nature and doing tactile work can’t be overstated. “A lot of veterans get stuck,” Franklin says. “They still live in the war. But being able to go to the farm, put my hands in the dirt, and feel myself being grounded has completely changed my mindset.”

Even if the graduates don’t decide to become commercial farmers, they still interpret and apply their education in ways that suit their situations. One Branson, Missouri, family, led by Army veteran parents, specifically came to Houston to participate in Growing Urban Farmers, Tamayo says. The family members learned how to grow food in a five-gallon bucket—perfect for their nomadic RV lifestyle. The kids now tend to their bucket strawberry garden, giving them consistency wherever they travel. “It’s all about empowering people to have their own resources and grow their own food,” Tamayo says.

That empowerment also comes from finding a healthy outlet for the skills that served veterans well in the military. As Tamayo says, vets have a strong sense of duty that doesn’t leave them when they leave the service. “This program offers many overarching ways to answer that call to duty to yourself, your community, and the planet,” she says.