Teaching veterans about plant and soil care

Bejamin Knight, a veteran, will be one of the Master Gardeners teaching VA FARMS pilot program at the Butler VA Healthcare System.

The Butler VA Healthcare System recently announced that it would be hosting four free gardening workshops for veterans this month.

Conducted over the course of four consecutive Thursdays, beginning July 11, the workshops will offer veterans hands-on experience in basic botany, soil health and fertilizer management, plant propagation, and vegetable gardening. All supplies will be provided, with participants able to take their work home. Each workshop will run from 10 a.m. to noon. Interested veterans should call (878) 271-6484 to register for these space-limited, first-come, first-served workshops.

Provided under the auspices of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Office of Rural Health (ORH), the workshops are offered as part of the Veteran Affairs Farming and Recovery Mental Health Services (VA FARMS) pilot program. The Butler VA Healthcare System is one of only 10 VHA sites nationwide selected to receive ORH funding to implement programing through the VA FARMS initiative.

VA FARMS uses agritherapy, a combination of behavioral health care services and vocational training, to meet the behavioral and mental health needs of veterans. “So what we’re doing is combining the therapeutic effects of doing farm work, that can be expanded to gardening and nature and anything like that, into working with mental health and people that maybe have PTSD or depression or anxiety,” says Karen Dunn, Butler VA’s Health Promotion and Disease Prevention manager and Patient-Centered Care coordinator.

“So we know that working and things like that are very therapeutic. So getting outside and working in the dirt, it’s really helpful for a lot of people. So that’s kind of where they’re marrying those two together,” she says.

Though Dunn will be administering the program, Benjamin Knight and Paul Starr, both veterans, will be conducting the workshops. Knight and Starr not only come to the program with varying levels of gardening and/or agricultural experience, but each has also participated in the Pennsylvania State University Extension Master Gardener Program.

“They’re (Knight and Starr) going to be utilizing the information that they have gained in the classes to do these workshops. I think veterans teaching other veterans is awesome. You know, they are very receptive to that. They have that camaraderie already. Kind of like a peer support one-on-one,” Dunn said.

It’s Dunn’s hope that the workshops will appeal to veterans regardless of individual agricultural or gardening goals. “Maybe that will be something where they would like to go get a job on a farm, in a greenhouse, or even just doing this at home and their own garden, or having something in the house.

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“They’re (Knight and Starr) going to show them (veterans) different ways that they can do gardening. So if you live in an apartment, you don’t have actual outside space that you can do, you know, things differently. Maybe learn skills that they can utilize at home, maybe having your own herb garden in your kitchen.”

Ultimately, however, VA FARMS is a means by which Butler VA hopes to provide veterans with an opportunity to enhance their ability to individually self-manage treatment and recovery.

“The name in itself gives you kind of a clue because it’s the VA FARMS, so it’s the farming and recovery mental health services. We’re trying to mesh those two, so utilizing it as a therapeutic approach. Maybe this could be an outlet for them. We’re always looking at ways to offer another service or program so that we don’t have to give you another pill for that,” Dunn said.

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