Veterans like Dylan Thomas, pictured with his family at Two Pines Farm in Marcellus, Mich., benefit from farmer veteran support programs, such as AgrAbility, Farmer Veteran Coalition and Homegrown By Heroes, a farmer veteran branding program.

Veterans like Dylan Thomas, pictured with his family at Two Pines Farm in Marcellus, Mich., benefit from farmer veteran support programs, such as AgrAbility, Farmer Veteran Coalition and Homegrown By Heroes, a farmer veteran branding program.

After spending most of his career serving in the military, U.S. Army veteran Dylan Thomas knew it was time to return to his farming roots. With their belongings packed and shipped, he and his wife, Abbi, left their home in Washington State and moved to Marcellus, Mich., to start their very own farm. Thomas knew he needed to be some place serene, away from the city; he wanted to connect with the earth and nourish his desire to cultivate the land. The Tennessee  native was no stranger to farming before founding Two Pines Farm in 2012, tucked away in the country of his wife’s home state; he grew up on a hog farm as a child.

Now at Two Pines Farm, the Thomas family raises pastured pork and chickens. “We found a little farmhouse with just over 12 acres in Michigan on the corner of two dirt roads,” Thomas says. “You really don’t find it unless you know exactly where you’re going.” Thomas left the Army with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a traumatic brain injury and other physical problems after serving years in Iraq.

“We knew that farming would give me a way to give back and help other people, and also be able to spend time outside,” he says. “We wanted it to be something our family could do.” The farmer found more than a new lease on life within Michigan agriculture – he was welcomed by a community supportive of farmer veterans, as well as initiatives to help him through the transition. After founding Two Pines Farm, Thomas spoke at a Farmer Veteran Coalition event where a fellow veteran told him about Michigan AgrAbility, a service helping farmers with medical impairments pursue their chosen agriculture lifestyle.

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AgrAbility helps veterans lay out achievable farm plans while transitioning back to civilian life. The program, a joint partnership between Michigan State University Extension and Easter Seals Michigan, is funded by donations and a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to research and develop farming tools, equipment and methods so farmers can work more efficiently.

It’s no wonder many veterans take to farming – the hard work and task-oriented nature suit them. Dylan Thomas stands in the field where he often walks to clear his mind and enjoy his farms' natural beauty at Two Pines Farm Wednesday December 16, 2015 in Newberg, Michigan

Assisting Farmer Veterans

“Farmers are very practical, and they need practical solutions that will make their lives easier,” says Ned Stoller, director and the agricultural engineer and assistive technology professional for AgrAbility. Stoller assists farmer veterans by assessing their needs

and developing meaningful solutions. He says they are often very creative and have already accommodated to their work to an extent before he arrives. “My job is to listen, think outside the box and connect the dots.” Like the majority of veterans, Thomas takes pride in self- efficiency and hard work – in earning what’s his. But soon after learning about AgrAbility, he realized what it could offer. “I realized the possibility of me farming could go away because of my injuries,” he says. “I spoke with Stoller, and he knows farming. He has passion not only for farming, but to help other people and get them in the right direction.”

A major challenge faced by farmer veterans is mobility problems. “Mobility is always a challenge for farmers with knee, hip and leg impairments,” Stoller says. “For example, the Action Track Chair is an all-terrain powered wheelchair on tracks that can drive through mud, sand, straw, rocks, forest and fields. Another accommodation is livestock handling equipment a farmer can use to sort livestock and restrain them for veterinary care without actually going into the pen with animals.” PTSD adds a new dimension to serving farmer veterans. Stoller says the quiet, low mental stress environment of a rural farm is ideal for veterans with the disorder. “When a veteran wants to start farming for his mental health, I try to educate him in various farm enterprises that would be better or worse based on his physical abilities,” he says. AgrAbility helped Thomas set plans for farming operations. The farmer veteran had already started the farm from scratch before learning about the program, but AgrAbility has helped the family reach new goals, like adjusting alleyways and corrals so Thomas can do the work on his own without assistance. “It’s been absolutely amazing, because the goals we’ve set have actually helped us adjust on our farm what we want to do,” Thomas says. “It helped make things more of a reality.” Thomas says the program opened him up to other supportive Michigan initiatives. Additionally, the Michigan State University Vets to Ag Program helps train homeless veterans to work in agriculture. “It’s helped us in other areas to be able to find help and to seek out these other organizations that work with veterans who are willing to help, either through fellowships or equipment or other areas like that,” Thomas says.
“You don’t shake hands with someone from AgrAbility and part ways. They want to see you succeed and help you in every way they can.”

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  1. Hello:
    I am a Veteran interested in buying a farm in Northwest Michigan. I’ve read the article concerning getting Veterans back to the land. Who can I contact in this regard for guidance in the process.

    Respectfully, Bryson Cutlip (US Army, ret.)


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