Gardening Led This Veteran to a New Life of Hope and Healing

Tracy Saelinger
Photo credit: Callie Lipkin

From Woman's Day

It's 3 a.m. on a warm summer day, and farmer Sonia Kendrick, 41, rolls out of bed. Outside the window though, there's no rooster crowing or sun creeping over a bucolic field: Sonia lives in a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And while she farms a total of 25 acres, it's sprinkled across the city in everything from quarter-acre patches to eight-acre parcels.

Each morning, after catching up on emails and meditating, Sonia gets her daughters, who are 11 and 13, off to school, then heads out to check on her farms. Sonia's land is actually owned by churches, businesses, and private citizens who donate its use to her nonprofit, Feed Iowa First.

Under Sonia's direction, about 100 volunteers help till the soil, plant seeds, water and fertilize, and harvest produce from tomatoes and eggplant to peas, beans, and radishes. The group donates the food - now about $150,000 worth each year - to food pantries and other organizations as well as directly to those in need.

Sonia is no stranger to the hard work necessary to get the job done - she served as a petroleum supply specialist in the U.S. Army National Guard from 1995 to 2004. Now she's part of a small but growing group of military veterans who are embracing agricultural work as a way to use their military training while making a living in a nontraditional manner.

Sonia, who suffers from PTSD and has struggled with alcoholism, credits the all-consuming job with saving her life: "When I don't feel safe - if I hear a helicopter or see a strange person - I've gotta move. At a regular desk job, you can't just leave," she says. "I'm trying to live my life and not let the fear rule me."

After stints in the Middle East with the Army, Sonia returned to Iowa in 2004 and had her two girls. All seemed fine until her PTSD set in a few years later. Unable to sleep, she turned to alcohol. "Sleep is a scary time for me - I hear everything. My brain still tells me someone is going to come kill me," she says.

She lost her job as an electrician and her marriage crumbled. After getting her drinking problem under control, she earned her master's degree in sustainable food systems, which she pursued after witnessing food insecurity firsthand in Afghan communities. She saw people running through minefields to get to food-supply trucks, digging through Dumpsters, even fighting for the Taliban or Al-Qaeda to provide for their families.

This opened her eyes to issues at home in Iowa, where 385,000 people experience food insecurity and an estimated 84% to 90% of food is brought in from other states, despite the abundance of farmland. And through it she found a new way to serve her country. "I consider food security to be national security," she says.

A Hand Up

Many see the vet-to-farmer movement as symbiotic: The land needs a new generation of farmers - the average age of principle farm operators has increased steadily over the past three decades - and returning veterans need meaningful work.


Photo credit: Callie Lipkin

Plus, the skills veterans have learned in the military are relevant: Strategic thinking, risk assessment, handling heavy equipment, working odd hours - all of it complements agriculture, says Dulanie Ellis, producer/director of the award-winning 2013 documentary Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farm Fields, about veterans transitioning into careers as farmers and ranchers.

Plus, many PTSD sufferers find agricultural work cathartic. "Farming and ranching save vet lives - there's no getting around it," Ellis says. "After being in a culture of death and destruction, they get to create life. I can't tell you how many have told me, 'I'm not great with people, but I love my sheep or cattle.'"

Photo credit: Callie Lipkin

Still, the shift from soldier to farmer isn't without challenges. Starting a farm takes money, land, and skills, and new young farmers need a boost. Considered disabled by the military, Sonia collects about $36,000 a year in benefits, a cushion that allowed her to get into the field and supplement her operations budget with fundraising.

A 1970s school bus serves as a mobile food pantry for Feed Iowa First, and the stories of the people who come aboard "totally busts the myth that people with low incomes don't care about good food," says volunteer Lynette Richards, who has worked with Sonia for years. "Sonia is a true visionary - she's willing to challenge the system; she's intelligent and informed and has a huge heart. She sees way beyond where most agencies and individuals leave off. She connects with people who have a desire to work hard and have a huge need."

A Budding Movement

The vet-to-farmer trend is still under the radar - the USDA began recording the number of people who fit the profile just last year. Plus, once vets are out of the service, they tend to disappear into civilian life, making outreach hard, explains Bridget Holcomb, executive director of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network.

Still, you might say the proof is in the produce, especially for Kelly D. Carlisle, 39, a U.S. Navy veteran who now runs Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, a farm and garden program in Oakland, California. Like Sonia's, Kelly's effort involves more than simply growing potatoes or carrots: Local children help plant, tend, and sell the veggies, with proceeds going into a savings account for each participating child.

Photo credit: Pete Rosos

It's early in the morning, yet Kelly, mom to a 13-year-old girl, has already been to the gym, then to Home Depot and back. At 7:30 a.m., kids will start pouring into the camp, and on top of that, she manages the farm's food pantry. It's a lot to juggle, but this is a woman who served roughly six years in the U.S. Navy and U.S. NavyReserves before working in corporate recruiting.

"The Navy taught me how to get the job done no matter how long it takes," Kelly says. "It taught me how to inspire people." Like Sonia and other veterans, Kelly is familiar with aspects of the world that the general public rarely experiences, something the military has in common with agriculture.

"I always hope we can encourage more farmers - it's easy to disconnect from where our food comes from," Kelly says. "More than any kind of therapy or physical activity, farming has made a difference in how I see myself in the wider world."

As for Sonia, her goal is to grow her Iowa farm to 500 acres - the number she'd need to provide vegetables for the 25,000 food-insecure residents of her county. "I want my children to live in a society free of food insecurity," she says."I believe everyone deserves healthy food."

Sonia Kendrick died in March 2018, but her work and the community she built lives on.

This story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Woman's Day.

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