A Maine-based documentary series premiering this weekend will tell the story of military veterans who are working the land after years of serving their country.
“Growing Home” will air the first of 13 30-minute episodes at 11 a.m. Sunday on NBC affiliates WLBZ2 and WCSH6. It’s been filmed on farms, homesteads, winerys and livestock operations.
“This is something I began working on a couple of years ago,” said Deborah Gould of Up Country Productions and a co-executive producer. “I have a small farm, and after my own experiences and seeing how some of my friends struggle with small farms, I wanted to do something to promote those small farms.”
But that changed not long after Gould was joined by Up Country Productions co-executive producers Lane McCall and Kit McCall to begin fleshing out the concept.
“Our original focus was looking at small farming and agriculture,” said Lane McCall. “But as we progressed in the development of the program, we started coming in contact with farmers who are also military veterans, [and] when we started doing some research, we saw vets entering farming is a national trend, and we just felt this was such an interesting angle.”
Working with state and national veterans organizations and agriculture agencies, the production crew identified 15 veteran-operated farms in Maine to film.
“There were some really inspiring stories,” McCall said. “These are people who, after leaving the military, have found a second career in farming and for some it has been a journey of healing to be outside in the elements working the land.”
Retired United States Army veteran Walter Green-Morse spent 21 years in the military, the final three years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center recovering from injuries suffered in a roadside bombing while serving in Iraq.
Today, he and his wife raise sheep and heritage breed hogs on their Jefferson homestead, which is the subject of the premiere episode of “Growing Home.”
“I grew up on a small homestead, and after I got out of the military, we decided to go back to it,” Green-Morse said. “My wife is also a military retiree, and life was moving way too fast for us, [and] farming was an option for us to slow things down and go back to our roots.”
There are no official data on how many military veterans are farming in the state or nationally, but according to Jerry Ireland, executive director of United Farmer Veterans of Maine, they number in the hundreds in the state.
“I can tell you firsthand that I have worked with 225 [military veteran farmers] and would easily put their numbers at higher than that,” Ireland said. “My projection would be by the end of 2017 we will have more than 400 veteran farmers in Maine.”
Inclusion of “military veteran” as a status option for future agriculture censuses in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill will make tracking veteran farmers easier, Ireland said.
Last year, Ireland’s organization helped seven veteran-operated farms get off the ground.
Ireland, himself a military veteran, said there are some good reasons farming attracts veterans.
“Agriculture is not an easy job, [and] it takes a very different type of commitment to be successful,” he said. “If you look at the generations of successful farmers in Maine, you see they are hardworking people who do their jobs day in and day out without complaining.”
Veterans, Ireland said, develop that work ethic starting in basic training.
Ireland said that once out of the military environment, some veterans — especially those dealing with physical and emotional traumas — can find it difficult to get jobs.
“A lot of disabled vets coming home are written off because they are looked at as unemployable,” Ireland said. “They may need modified or flexible work schedules, so if you take those same disabled vets and put them on a farm where they can change things up and do different tasks according to their schedules, that offers them a huge opportunity.”
And when it comes down to it, Ireland said, veterans simply know how to get things done.
“In Maine, agriculture logistics is a big challenge [because] it’s a big, rural state and hard to move stuff around,” he said. “But if vets are good at one thing, it’s moving stuff and logistics.”
Gould and McCall said their primary goal was to have the veterans tell their own stories.
“The show is very visual,” McCall said. “It’s not your typical interview show, instead there is a lot of b-roll, aerial shots and music [and] each farming veteran telling their story.”
Among those veterans is Anne Weinberg who with her husband runs Chase Stream Farm in Monroe.
“We are both retired United States Marines,” Weinberg said. “We felt like we could do more for fellow vets and for ourselves with this farm.”
Neither Weinberg had ever farmed before, but Anne Weinberg said things are going well with this past year’s organic vegetable crop and with plans to add bees, livestock and fruit trees in the coming year.
“Having the farm allows us to live a quiet and simple life and focus on family,” Weinberg said. “Yesterday we went snowshoeing in the middle of the day, and we were saying this is what people pay to do on vacation, and it is part of our everyday life.”
The Weinbergs’ ultimate goal is to open their farm to fellow veterans who want to learn about agriculture and start their own farms.
“That’s the one thing we saw with everyone we talked to,” McCall said. “Every single vet has such a heart for their fellow brother and sister veteran, and every one of them expressed if there is any vet out there who needs or wants our help, we want to help you.”
For Gould, it is an honor to help tell these stories.
“This whole project has been so emotional for me,” she said. “To have these veterans share their stories has been a truly emotional journey.”
Up Country Productions is hosting a private premiere party on Sunday in Bangor, and some of the veterans who were part of the documentary, along with the production crew and sponsors, will be there.
“I hope people come away from watching this with a real idea of who we are,” Green-Morse said. “And for all the veterans out there who are thinking of farming, I hope they will see they are not alone and we are here to help them.”