From combat to cornfields: In farming, veterans find new purpose

Richard Mertens
Sara Creech, who served in the Air Force as a nurse, holds a lamb on her farm in North Salem, Indiana. She has a variety of animals and crops.

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Sara Creech didn’t start out to be a farmer. She grew up on the outskirts of Kalamazoo, Michigan, went to college to become a nurse, and joined the Air Force. After serving two years, some of it in a surgical team deployed with combat units in Qatar, she left with post-traumatic stress disorder. Five years later, her husband died. 

Ms. Creech could no longer bear hospitals and nursing, so she bought a 43-acre dairy farm near Indianapolis. Well-suited to a life of discipline and hard work from her military career, she found in farming a sense of purpose, connection to community, and a chance to heal emotional and psychological wounds. 

She has since opened her farm to the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a nationwide effort to help veterans become farmers. The work can help vets transition to civilian life and bring new life to a fading industry. “In the military it’s all about the bigger mission, being part of something bigger,” Ms. Creech says. “When you come out of the military, an office job just doesn’t have that higher purpose. Farming does.”

Why We Wrote This

After the adrenaline and trauma of war, transitioning to civilian life is challenging for some veterans. A nationwide effort is helping veterans find fulfillment, connection, and healing in farming.

It’s 12 degrees, the wind is biting, and Sara Creech heads out to feed her livestock. So much for the romance of farming. The wind gusts across frozen pastures, against the small metal barn where her chickens huddle, and through the open cab of her red Kubota four-wheeler, the back loaded with bales of hay.

She stops at a fence, and nine shaggy cattle lumber over. “Come on, buddy!” she calls out to the smallest, lagging behind. “Why so slow?” She tosses them clumps of hay, working with the quick efficiency of someone familiar with daily chores and undaunted by the cold.

“With farming there are a lot of really tough times,” she says. “It’s cold or it’s hot. It’s hard to make money. There are so many things to go wrong.... But I totally feel more at peace in farming than in anything I’ve done in my life. I feel I was made for farming.”

Why We Wrote This

After the adrenaline and trauma of war, transitioning to civilian life is challenging for some veterans. A nationwide effort is helping veterans find fulfillment, connection, and healing in farming.

Ms. Creech is a former Air Force nurse and part of a growing effort across the United States to help veterans become farmers. This effort began a decade ago when a California farm manager named Michael O’Gorman assembled a small group of vets and started the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Today the FVC has more than 16,000 members across the country and an increasing number of state chapters. Meanwhile, hundreds of other organizations have joined the effort, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agricultural universities. “We’ve been able to wake up and mobilize an entire industry,” Mr. O’Gorman says.

Ms. Creech has been both a beneficiary and a leader of this mobilization, a node in an expanding web of veteran farmers and would-be farmers. She has opened her small Indiana farm to them, hosting workshops, giving tours, and offering advice and encouragement. In 2017, she and two veterans at Purdue University started the Indiana chapter of the FVC. The chapter’s big project this year is setting up a small incubator farm where aspiring farmers can spend an extended period in residence.

“Just hearing her story is encouraging,” says Michael Mosier, a Marine veteran in eastern Indiana who has attended workshops on Ms. Creech’s farm. 

Ms. Creech didn’t start out to be a farmer. She grew up on the outskirts of Kalamazoo, Michigan, within sight of cornfields, but that’s as close as she got to agriculture. She went to college, became a nurse, and joined the Air Force. 

She served two years, some of it in a forward surgical team based in Qatar. Deployed with combat units, the team worked to keep wounded soldiers alive until they could be evacuated. In 2006, she left the Air Force with post-traumatic stress disorder. Five years later her husband, Lt. Col. Charles Creech, a pilot, was diagnosed with colon cancer and died. 

Ms. Creech tried to return to nursing. “I hated being in the hospital,” she says. “It brought back too many reminders, too much stress.” At the end of 2011, she bought an old 43-acre dairy farm west of Indianapolis and withdrew to the countryside.

That first spring she planted 50 fruit trees and hundreds of raspberries. At the time she wasn’t thinking of a commercial operation. Like many veterans, she simply yearned for a healthier and more peaceful life. Then she attended a farming seminar with other veterans. “I was really charged,” she says. “I thought, I’m going home and I’m going to start a farm.”

Most Indiana farms grow two things: corn and soybeans. Blue Yonder Organic Farm grows many things. Ms. Creech keeps ducks, turkeys, cattle, sheep, and hundreds of laying hens. She grows many kinds of fruits and vegetables, including shiitake mushrooms. In late winter she makes maple syrup. Diversity is the key, she says. She sells most of what she produces at farmers markets and through community-supported agriculture programs. Farming, she says, has helped her “reconnect to the community.”

Karen Norris/Staff

Ms. Creech and others say veterans are well suited to farming. They say military service instills the discipline and work ethic a farmer needs. Many vets, too, are looking for the sense of purpose that they find in growing crops or tending livestock. Farming also eases their adjustment to civilian life. For some, it can help heal emotional and psychological wounds.

“A lot of it has to do with the fact that you’re taking something like a seed and planting it in the ground and providing care for it and nursing it,” Ms. Creech says. “And something is being born out of that.”

Even as she worked to establish her farm, Ms. Creech was reaching out to her community – to veterans like Caroline Phillips. Ms. Phillips spent seven months at the farm, learning the ropes. Back home from Army service in Iraq, she experienced anxiety and depression. She found it hard to drive or even leave her house. Farming began to change that. “I knew I had plants and animals that relied on me to live,” she says.

At Ms. Creech’s farm she helped build hoop houses and prepare vegetable beds. She planted, weeded, and harvested. She fenced in a small pasture and started her own herd of milk goats. There was always something more to do.

After leaving the farm, Ms. Phillips went to Rome to study food and agriculture. She fell in love, got married, and came into possession of a small olive grove in southern Italy. Today she sells artisanal oil on Amazon. 

“My time with Sara taught me patience and humbled me,” she says. “It gave me purpose, a new mission. It gave me my life back.”

Some vets return home to established family operations, but most, like Ms. Creech, are starting from scratch.

Her days are long. On most nights, she’s on call for an insurance company, arranging medical care, and sometimes evacuations, for people abroad. “You get used to it,” she says. 

Meanwhile, there is new life to tend. On the upper floor of her farmhouse, seedlings are sprouting in racks under fluorescent lights – slender shoots of tomato, lettuce, pepper, spinach, and beet. Fifty chicks are living in her bathtub, tumbling over each other and filling the air with their shrill peeping. The U.S. Postal Service delivered them a few days earlier, when it was too cold for them in the barn.

“In the military it’s all about the bigger mission, being part of something bigger,” Ms. Creech says. “When you come out of the military, an office job just doesn’t have that higher purpose. Farming does.”

Three groups with links to agriculture 

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. 

• BRAC USA aims to empower people as well as communities dealing with poverty, illiteracy, disease, or social injustice. Take action: Financially support training for those who work with farmers to improve their harvests.

Mexican Association for Rural and Urban Transformation promotes the renewal of marginalized communities in Mexico through various programs. Take action: Learn to organically produce food as a volunteer at an ecological center in Palenque, Mexico.

The HALO Trust is the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian land mine clearance organization. Take action: Financially support the removal of mines in Kosovo, making families and farms safer. 

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