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Farming project aims to help Canadian veterans adjust to civilian life

Canadian troops on the tarmac at CFB Trenton after returning from Afghanistan, Jan. 23, 2014.

Lars Hagberg/The Globe and Mail

On a stretch of rolling hills north of Toronto, two men are trying to start a farm to help former members of the Canadian Forces resettle after they leave the service.

The project is still in the planning stages, but John Randolph, a management consultant with a history of supporting military families, and Toronto businessman Bobby Sniderman hope to see a network of farms that could help veterans reintegrate into civilian life.

The veterans' farm is the brainchild of Mr. Randolph, a former assistant deputy minister at Ontario's Ministry of Revenue, who in 2007 founded Forces & Families, a volunteer organization that supports current and former members of the military.

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A few years ago, Mr. Randolph met vice-admiral Bruce Donaldson, then vice-chief of the defence staff, who urged the consultant to focus his efforts on veterans' mental well-being.

"They clearly had been struggling with the issue for many years. Nobody can solve those problems by themselves, but it's a collective effort," Mr. Randolph said.

Canada ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, but the impact on military personnel has persisted, with a lingering legacy of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides.

Some have tried to assist veterans with their move to the civilian world.

The non-profit group Wounded Warriors Canada, for example, worked with Senator Roméo Dallaire's Child Soldiers Initiative. Last week, they launched a program at Dalhousie University that will turn 15 veterans into specialized trainers who can teach peacekeepers, police or military personnel how to deal with child soldiers.

Mr. Randolph believes that farming could be another approach. He noted that many military members already live in rural areas, near the small towns where bases are located.

Working the land could also help them find peace of mind, he added. "We're trying to find solutions for our military, for veterans, for their mental wellness."

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His friend Mr. Sniderman has offered a 160-acre farm he owns near Orangeville to test the farming project.

"I feel this is a responsibility, that the community has to take care of the people who've made great sacrifices and enable us to enjoy the quality of life we have," Mr. Sniderman said.

While his family is best known for the now-defunct Sam the Record Man music stores, Mr. Sniderman is no stranger to farming.

The Sniderman family used to operate a fruit farm in Grimsby, Ont., in the Niagara region. After high school, Mr. Sniderman worked on a tobacco farm.

The Orangeville land, which Mr. Sniderman bought in 2007, was once a dairy farm and retains a historic log home.

He operated it as an organic farm for about two years, so it already has a processing shed with a walk-in cold storage area for produce.

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The farm also has a beehive, and some woodland that produces maple syrup.

Similar veterans transition endeavours exist in the United States.

In Denver, former Marine Buck Adams started Veterans to Farmers, which teaches former soldiers how to operate greenhouses and botanical gardens.

The project was launched four years ago, but became fully operational only last year, training 47 former military people – pilots, infantrymen, canine-handlers, divers – program manager Richard Murphy said.

"We're pretty big on the fact that veterans are going to take care of other veterans," said Mr. Murphy, a former member of the U.S. Air Force.

He expects to train 60 more people this year.

The veterans are paid a stipend. It was financed with a grant from a private health-care provider, but Mr. Murphy was hoping for a subsidy from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the project is not formally a therapy, it helps veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury prepare for what they will do after leaving the military, Mr. Murphy said.

"We allow them an opportunity to create life."

The Canadian project is still at a preliminary phase, but Niagara College has agreed to donate greenhouse equipment, Mr. Randolph said.

The farming would only supplement veterans' pension and disability payments, he said.

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More


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