This article originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 double issue of The Progressive. For more great content like this, subscribe today and get one full year of the magazine for as little as $10.
Steven Acheson spent nearly five years on active duty. He saw the Iraq War up close.
“We went on over 400 combat escort missions in eleven months, and I put in over 18,000 miles as lead driver through Sadr City,” the 28-year-old Acheson recalls. “It changed me, a lot. Seeing kids just having to walk through their own sewage water because we destroyed all their public infrastructure, it just really pulled at my heartstrings.”
So when he came back to the United States, Acheson spent four years agitating for peace with fellow members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, only to find himself feeling angry and frustrated at how little they managed to change.
It was only after returning to Madison, Wisconsin, that Acheson found his calling, connecting with the owners of Gardens of Goodness in the summer of 2013. It was there, amid the tomatoes and arugula, that he discovered something his war-rattled brain couldn't have summoned during the angry years of the Bush Administration.
Acheson discovered that he loves to farm.
“Growing herbs and vegetables really grounded me,” he said.
“You all should try it out sometime,” he tells his friends on Facebook. “Get back in touch with your roots, get some soil on those hands. If I had a soul, it would be healed.”
Gardens of Goodness is a CSA, which stands for community-supported agriculture—an arrangement whereby consumers agree ahead of time to buy a bundle of produce every week from a local farmer.
After three months of hard work on the Gardens of Goodness farm on the outskirts of town, Acheson began formulating a plan for a new approach to activism that completely bypasses the whole screaming at powerful people in hopes that they’ll listen approach.
He decided to take over the CSA himself and run it for vets like him.
Soon, Gardens of Goodness CSA will become "Peacefully Organic Produce and CSA: A Veteran-Led Community Farm," he wrote, “aka ‘POPs.’” The previous owners, wanted “a clean break” to focus on their core business elsewhere, he says.
Starting next spring, Madison will have its very first veteran-run, organic CSA. Acheson couldn’t be happier about that, but he hopes the veteran-run CSA will be more than just a business.
“I want this to become a national center for veterans’ farming,” he says. “But it’s also a platform to discuss other issues with the public. And it shows that you can do good things in your community without having to join the service.”
Acheson isn’t alone. Todd Dennis, a fellow veteran who served on a nuclear submarine and joined the IVAW despite not being in country, has been helping get the farm ready for their rollout when he’s not working full time as a soup kitchen coordinator.
“Steve took over the farm, and I’ve known Steve for a while,” Dennis says. “I’ve been gardening pretty much my whole life, except for when I was in the military, so I got involved.”
Other area veterans have felt the draw of this project too, according to Acheson. Word of the “veteran farm” spread quickly through the IVAW channels, drawing people in from as far away as Killeen, Texas, the town that encompases Fort Hood. One former IVAW agitator in particular, Crystal Colon -- who literally jumped in front of a bus full of soldiers in 2010 as they were being deployed from Fort Hood to Iraq -- temporarily moved into a small house on the property just out of her desire to be a part of the project.
Acheson said several other local IVAW members have also been pitching in, volunteering to help sell produce, clear the fields, prep the facilities and get the place ready for next spring, when the business will officially open its doors to new members.
“We already have people coming out here trying to buy stuff, but we don’t even have a sign saying that anything’s for sale,” he says. “I think we can really pull in a lot of folks off the street. It’s going to be great.”
Still, he cautions that this isn’t just the anti-war farm.
“We’re open to any type of veteran,” Acheson says. “A lot of people who do this just happen to be with IVAW or Veterans for Peace.”
And he stresses how invigorating it is to actually being doing something tangible.
“A lot of the anti-war community is full of great talkers who just want to sit around and discuss, like, ‘What is this better world going to look like?’ ” he says. “To me, I’m thinking, ‘Come out to Madison, come out to the CSA, and you can see it happening.’ It doesn’t get more grassroots than what we’re trying to do here.”