The Rodale Institute, a non-profit organic research farm in eastern Pennsylvania, is tackling both problems with an innovative program that transforms veterans into organic farmers.
These sisters are 2016 graduates of the program
When they were children in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Jessika and Kristen Greendeer loved to slip out of the house just after sunrise during summer to plunge into neighboring Mirror Lake State Park, where in the mornings the water was still and the forest was warm and dewy. The sisters were born into the Ho-Chunk Nation 23 months apart, Jessika followed by Kristen, but they were twinlike in the fierceness of their bond. They invented games in the woods and swam and played army, but they rarely fought for real.
“If we did,” Kristen says, “within 5 minutes one of us would crack a joke and it would be over.”
In 2004, when they were in their twenties, the sisters decided to sign up for the U.S Army through the Buddy Program, which allows recruits to join and enter basic training together. Their work pulled them apart—Jessika went to Iraq as a public affairs officer and Kristen stayed in Germany doing logistics work—but they talked constantly on Skype. When they got out—Kristen first, then Jessika in 2014—the question became: What do we do next?
The sisters have the same pulled-back dark hair and quick smile. They also share this way of looking at each other before answering a question, their brains synchronizing like the movements of a watch:
You want to take that one?
No, you go ahead.
The answer quickly became obvious enough. Kristen had two children then and had become increasingly adamant about feeding them healthy food, but organic produce taxed her budget. That led to the revelation that the sisters—who then shared a house in North Carolina—could learn to grow their own. Jessika searched the Veterans Affairs website and stopped scrolling on one program: Rodale Institute, in Pennsylvania, had teamed with Delaware Valley University to offer a one-year organic-farming certificate available to the Greendeers with their G.I. Bill benefits.
Jessika and Kristen enrolled last summer. They will receive certificates this August, having studied soil biology, pest control, compost pile management, and other essentials of running their own vegetable-growing operation. Rodale Institute, an organization dedicated to research and leadership in organic farming, initiated the partnership with DVU in 2013, and by summer’s end the women will be among a total of 11 people to graduate so far, says Justin Barclay, who runs the program at the institute.
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The Greendeers have been struck by the degree to which the people they’ve met have been excited about sharing knowledge. “Farmers really want to help each other out,” Kristen says.
“Especially organic farmers,” Jessika says.
Native American populations across the country are particuarly affected by food insecurity. The Greendeers plan to take their lessons back to Wisconsin to help other members of the Ho-Chunk Nation become self-sufficient by growing organic food. They want to start a nonprofit. Barclay connected them to an organic farming veteran near where they grew up.
Related: This Native American Tribe Turned To Ancestral Farming Practices To Combat A Health Crisis
“I feel like in life we’ve been put on a path we’re meant to be on,” Jessika says. She glances at Kristen. Kristen looks back at Jessika. There are no words needed to make it clear that on this point, they agree.