On a gentle hill on the outskirts of Bristol, Vermont lies ten acres of rich farmland, rolling fields of perfectly plotted perennials– trees, nuts and berries — mushrooms to fertilize the orchards, chickens paying their rent in eggs, and goats to cut the grass. Rows of saplings line the perimeter, smartly controlling soil health and erosion. From oaks to elderberries, each tree has a specific purpose, whether for food, windbreak, firewood or forage. Every element of the farm is mission-driven and artfully engineered by an equally complex and vibrant ecosystem within the mind of John Turner.
Retired U.S. Marine, Iraq War veteran, young father and now homesteading farmer, Turner and his wife Cathy started Wild Roots Farm five years ago with the goal of healing himself from the scars of a war-torn service, along with other veterans who would make a pilgrimage to the farm, and ultimately, the land, through the practice of sustainable agriculture. Wild Roots Farm now produces enough food for the Turner family, with plenty extra to give back to the community.
If 15 years ago, you had told John Turner he’d be farming the land and leading hundreds of students, veterans and community members in the same life-giving practices, he wouldn’t have believed you. Between 2004 and 2007, Turner served three tours, one in Haiti and two in Iraq. On his final deployment to Ramadi, he nearly died when a mortar blast sent shrapnel into his jaw, narrowly avoiding his carotid artery. Suffering a traumatic brain injury, he returned home with severe PTSD.
In an effort to reconnect with himself, Turner began writing and publishing poetry, joining Warrior Writers and the Combat Paper Project. Still, the transition to civilian life proved exceedingly difficult until he sunk his feet into the dirt. Through gardening, Turner found a sense of purpose and peace of mind that he’d been seeking to no avail in alcohol, drugs and other destructive outlets. He began to study permaculture, sustainable design, natural building and woodworking, and after ten years of digging around in the dirt, Turner is living, breathing proof of healthy soil’s ability to contribute to our well-being in a visceral way. Bacteria in the soil gets into our pores, triggering a release of serotonin, and for Turner, this not only sobered him up, but gave him a new mission.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case for many of Turner’s brothers in arms. Over the years, he’s lost several military buddies to suicide, the hidden casualty of war. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that veterans ages 18 to 29 are six times more likely than their civilian counterparts to commit suicide. Turner says, “A lot of the reason vets take their own life is that they don’t have a sense of service anymore. When you’re at war, you know what you’re doing. Man or woman, whatever your job was, everything was mission-oriented.” With Wild Roots Farm, Turner is creating an educational landscape where veterans can learn not only to grow food, but to reintegrate into civilian life through farming. “In a sense you’re kind of nurturing yourself, you’re more capable of healing wounds that might have gone unseen.”
Nowadays, Turner is including youth in his outreach, hosting workshops, retreats on organic gardening, permaculture and small-scale diversified farming for schoolchildren and college students. Turner’s gospel is one of sustainability, founded on the firm belief that this type of farming is possible on a larger scale — despite what we may have been told, industrial agriculture is not the only option for feeding a growing world population. As the climate shifts, we will need farming techniques based on an ecosystem of resilience, practices that treat the land more gently and depend less on fossil fuels. In the words of a war veteran turned farmer, we find abundant food for thought and solid ground for healing.