Veterans can work on an urban farm, learn how to grow produce | Business Spotlight

Veterans can work on an urban farm, learn how to grow produce | Business Spotlight

Since November 2019, the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture has provided a space for veterans to grow produce and find a community.

The Veterans Urban Farm at 1207 Smith St. is just outside the Columbia downtown sector. Yet it has all the room it needs to plant lettuce, radishes, strawberries and more. It is even home to a few chickens and beehives.

But the farm’s outreach is much bigger than its acre of land. The Veterans Urban Farm teaches horticulture and maintenance practices to boost veterans’ skill sets. It aims to fill the gap between military service and the next job.

It is also a space where patients at the Truman Veterans’ Hospital can volunteer and get physical exercise, mindfulness practice and emotional support.

Dustin Cook, manager of the Veterans Urban Farm and a veteran himself, said the pandemic has disrupted the continuity of the program.

“Once the COVID restrictions get lifted, we’ll have some more groups out here, and they’ll do things like yoga and tai chi, group therapy and mindfulness meditation,” Cook said.

The work he does at the farm uses his skills as a veteran and teacher. He served in the Army for nearly a decade and now works with veteran volunteers to assist them in farm work and planning their programs.

Cook helps veterans learn how to plant crops, take care of them and work with some of the animals at the farm. This gives them necessary skills to eventually get jobs in farming, horticulture and even beekeeping, he said.

Dixie Litchard, assistant manager and an Army veteran, knows firsthand how important the farm is to Columbia and local veterans.

Litchard served in the Army in Iraq, and after her deployment, she decided to transfer from Michigan State University to MU to study plant sciences through the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

She didn’t grow up on a farm or work in agriculture, but the idea always appealed to her. She knew that after her first deployment, this was her path. Specialties in plant science and a deployment gave her the skills to work with veterans at the farm.

“If they are struggling to keep a job or need some skills experience, they come here and we can teach them about horticulture,” she said. “So then, hopefully, they can go out and find a job.”

Many of the veteran volunteers are actually on contract. They volunteer each week for several hours at the same time to gain more horticultural experience.

The CCUA gives back in other ways, too.

“We try to donate to veterans organizations such as Welcome Home, which is the veterans homeless shelter,” Litchard said. “We also donate money or food to the VA, and they have a healthy cooking class for veterans.”

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