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James Jeffers tilling the soil in the community garden.

Amy Smith

From the Battlefield to the Farm: How Two Iraq War Vets Found Their Passion as Foodies

Two Army buddies took to the earth to work through their emotional and physical scars after combat — "dirt therapy," they called it. Their gardening hobby turned into a bona fide urban farm.

Steve Smith and James Jeffers, both 38, first met serving with the United States Army at Fort Hood, Texas, in the tense years after the 9/11 attacks. They became fast friends, but when they received different assignments, they set off on their separate ways. Over the years, their paths would diverge and cross, until eventually the two friends would come together back home in Texas and forge an unexpected business partnership — as farmers. The two veterans had a lot of healing to do after their tours in the Middle East, and they found comfort, sustenance and a revived sense of serving their community by digging their hands into the dirt around their homes in a Dallas suburb.

The first time Smith and Jeffers reconnected, it was pure coincidence. Smith had briefly left the Army before being recalled in 2005 to serve as part of a security force at Camp Buehring, a staging base in Kuwait for soldiers headed north into Iraq. Smith accompanied convoys into that country. Jeffers, meanwhile, had made the Army his career; a natural leader, he had risen quickly to the rank of sergeant first class. He ended up at the same base in Kuwait, before heading into Iraq. On the last night of Smith’s tour, he happened to go to the gym, where he looked up and spotted Jeffers. The two men pledged to do a better job of staying in touch before parting ways again.

Both Smith and Jeffers served two tours in the Middle East, but Smith says his friend had a tougher time by far. Jeffers served his second tour in Baghdad on Haifa Street, the contentious two-mile line between the Sunni and Shiite populations in the city. The U.S. Army and the Iraqi National Guard patrolled the median, constantly trying to maintain order in an area that had become known as “Grenade Alley.” “I loved what I did,” Jeffers says. “I loved being in the Army and I was good at it.”

But the experience left him scarred. While on patrol he encountered car bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket-propelled grenade attacks and firefights with insurgents. Shrapnel scarred more than half his body and numerous concussions led to an eventual diagnosis of traumatic brain injury (TBI). His cognitive functions were becoming clouded. Jeffers says he realized he needed help after he got back stateside and began forgetting how to do simple, everyday tasks like reading or making coffee. He says he’d forget to put coffee grounds in the machine one day and then fail to put water in the reservoir the next — he broke three coffee makers. After being diagnosed with TBI, he was faced with a decision: either stay in the Army and likely be relegated to a desk job, or leave it for an uncertain future. Rated at 100 percent disability, Jeffers reluctantly chose to leave the Army he loved.

He sought out his old buddy Smith, who was working in construction, and they reconnected. He told Smith he couldn’t just sit around and collect his disability check. Over in Iraq, Jeffers had done more than fight battles; he had built up communities and provided basic services to people who needed them. “‘I have to have a purpose,’ he said,” Smith recalls. The two friends came up with an idea to start a green home-renovation business in Dallas, but bad luck struck again as the recession hit and the housing market slowed.

Smith was also dealing with his own health issues. He had developed a rainbow of debilitating food allergies, including lactose intolerance, while in the Army, and he was trying to mitigate the symptoms through lifestyle changes — namely by eating a totally organic diet. Smith plowed the yard around his Oak Cliff, Texas, home, and he and his family began growing their own food.

Inspired by his friend, Jeffers decided to tear up his own yard and go organic, too. It turned out that gardening was just the kind of work he needed. “I fell in love with it immediately,” Jeffers says. “It was peaceful, quiet and I was working on my own.” Reading was recommended as therapy for his TBI, and he found himself voraciously reading organic gardening books.

The two men also began holding regular evening get-togethers with their neighbors, which they called “firepit nights,” Smith says. Oak Cliff is an eclectic neighborhood near downtown Dallas, a mix of pre-World War II homes and mid-century moderns, and a mix of residents that include lawyers and chefs, carpenters, brewmasters and artists. Gathered around the fire, the guys would hold “cool brainstorming sessions,” Smith says, “where the energy of the fire and maybe the beer” fed dreams and plans.

It was around the firepit that Smith and Jeffers came up with an enduring plan. They wanted to share their enthusiasm for gardening and their passion for fresh, locally produced food with a wider audience. So they decided to try to scale up their home growing efforts and launch a real urban farm. They used every square inch of their own land for planting, and supplemented it with community gardens around town, friends’ yards and rooftop planters — all told, about an acre of harvestable land, growing Swiss chard, tomatoes and kale. Smith and Jeffers went through a training program with the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national program that helps veterans launch new careers in agriculture. They toured small-scale farms run by vets in other parts of the country to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Smith and Jeffers’ vegetable beds thrived. They sold their freshly harvested crops to local groceries and restaurants. They wanted their operation to have as small an environmental footprint as possible, so they strove to make it a closed-loop system, selling their produce to restaurants, then in turn taking the restaurants’ biodegradable waste to use as compost and fuel oil. They called their new venture Eat the Yard.

Eat the Yard is still a small operation, and its long-term profitability remains a question mark, but its founders have big dreams. The food movement is just taking hold in Dallas, and Smith and Jeffers are planning to ride the wave. A local developer, Brian Bergersen, and his partners have undertaken a $65 million renovation of the cityʼs derelict Farmers Market. Taking inspiration from Seattleʼs iconic Pike Place Market, they plan to turn the Dallas location into a food and community center complete with market stands, residential housing, a beer garden and restaurants. Smith and Jeffers have met with Bergersen and have plans to include a two-acre urban farm as part of the project. They say the farm will not only produce vegetables, but will also serve as a “learning farm” for Dallas schoolchildren, many of whom live in the low-income neighborhoods nearby. “If itʼs not on a cheeseburger from McDonaldʼs, they donʼt know what it is,” Smith says, but the Eat the Yard farm will teach kids how to grow fresh food and what it tastes like.

They also want the farm to serve as a resource for other veterans who are struggling to make the transition back into civilian life. Smith says he wants them to learn what gardening can do for them — what he calls “dirt therapy.” The idea is to bring other vets on the farm and teach them the ropes, which will eventually allow them to build their own farms — along with other veteran outreach networks — in their own communities.

“The Army has a culture of passing on knowledge,” Jeffers says. “A tradition that before you leave you should bestow what you know on the next generation. Itʼs the same thing with farming.” Passing on their knowledge is a way to serve their community, and creating a learning farm, Smiths adds, “is a way to share the gospel with everybody.”

Smith still works full time in construction, but Jeffers spends his days on the farm. “The biggest thing for me is that itʼs meaningful work. I needed that,” he says. “I am very passionate about this and without this I would be a lot worse off.” He has persistent memory problems and occasional vertigo. But being out in the garden, where there is always something to do, no matter the season, has been the catalyst that helped heal his friend, Smith says. “It has done wonders for me,” Jeffers says. “For veterans, no one needs to stamp them ʻBroken. Needs Fixing.ʼ They need something to do. They need to continue their service.”

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Hilary Hylton is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. She has written for TIME and other magazines and newspapers, covering Texas politics, business, lifestyles, the arts, travel, culinary topics, and personalities. She is the

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