Your Voices: Whatcom County farm helping save Veteran lives, ‘one organic plant at a time’

An organic farm in Whatcom County is dedicated to providing a safe space for military veterans to transition to civilian life. So-called “dirt therapy” is helping transform lives.

Growing Veterans” has a catchy, playful name.

But the mostly-volunteer organization is serious about helping veterans ease out of their military uniforms and into their civvies, for good.

Before Jered Bocek was tilling soil, before he had planted a single vegetable, he was a proud Marine.

“It’s my absolute favorite tattoo,” he said, showing the tattoos that cover his left arm. “You have to earn it.”

But he faced an uphill battle as his 5-and-a-half-year military stint came to an end.

“I had this void in my soul,” Bocek said. “I couldn’t put my finger on it. I just knew that something wasn’t right. And I didn’t feel like I belonged. And this is my hometown. My family’s here. My best friends are here.”

Then, he discovered the Whatcom County organization with the quirky name.

“The common joke that we get, especially with like the older veteran community,” said Bocek, laughing, “is ‘oh, you’re growing veterans out there?’”

But “Growing Veterans,” this unassuming, mostly volunteer organic farm some 15 miles from the Canadian border, helped save his life.

“So we’re out in the field we’re harvesting, we’re working hard,” Bocek said. “And you just start to open up. And after a little while, now I feel like I just lost like 10 pounds or something.”

He was hooked.

“I got indoctrinated into the dirt therapy,” said Bocek.

Growing Veterans got its start in 2012. Bocek joined as a volunteer six years later.  Now he’s executive director.

“The idea of ‘Growing Veterans’ was to end the isolation that leads to veterans’ suicide,” said Bocek. “That’s our whole mission.”

He was asked if he knows any veterans who have died by suicide.

“Yes, I have quite a few friends who have committed suicide,” he said.  “Quite a few, unfortunately.”

According to the State Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans make up just seven percent of Washington’s population. But they account for 18% of suicides in the Evergreen State.

“As a military spouse, I don’t often feel welcome in military spaces,” said Tonneli Gruetter, as she “up-potted” serrano pepper plants.

The struggle can be real for military wives, too. Gruetter’s husband is active-duty Navy.

“And when I came to Growing Veterans, it was immediately clear to me that it was different,” Gruetter said. “Everyone always says ‘We are a veterans group, we’re not a veterans club.’ So, all are welcome here.

It is likely true that dirt therapy isn’t the answer for every veteran trying to reintegrate into society. But on a gorgeous day like this, it surely can’t hurt, one organic plant at a time.

“I was in a dark place when I came here,” admitted Gruetter. “And I can safely say that is not the case anymore.”

Out of that darkness, life.

Growing Veterans has donated some 15,000 pounds of organic produce to food banks in Whatcom, Skagit, and Island counties.

To raise money, they do sell some of what they grow: organic hops to local breweries and serrano peppers to create a hot sauce.