Mike Burns scoops up a palmful of dirt and tosses the soil particles back and forth in his left hand. "This is addictive," he says—to plant seeds, to watch green peppers pop out of the earth, to experience the peacefulness of a chilly morning in the garden. "Getting into dirt, it's life," Burns says. The 71-year-old ex-fighter pilot kicks an earth box with a sneaker. "This is 70 pounds of life."
It's also work. Burns and a handful of fellow veterans are spending their Saturday morning at Green Path Veterans Farm, a small plot situated inside north Sarasota's Orange Blossom Community Garden. Green Path has been organized by members of the Florida Veterans for Common Sense Fund, a veterans' support organization.
As Burns and fellow veterans Dave Siegwald and Jutta Tolbert and New College of Florida intern Billy Cooney dig out space to transplant blueburry bushes and churn soil that's alive with twisting and wiggling worms, Larry Heiny provides guidance. Heiny is in charge of Green Path, even though he's not a veteran himself. His father sailed into Nagasaki shortly after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city; he later died of cancer. Heiny says his work with veterans is a tribute to him: "That's what brings me here."
The veterans farm project began at Community Haven last summer before shifting to Orange Blossom, a sprawling garden fenced in behind a playground on Orange Avenue, just north of 18th Street. Since being founded eight years ago by Barbara Powell Harris, the garden has played an important role in connecting neighborhood residents to healthy, fresh food, and has become a hub for community activists passionate about reaching locals who live in food deserts and teaching kids about where food comes from.
Heiny grew up growing food. His grandparents had mangoes and chickens and a dairy farm. As volunteers dig in, he describes the life cycle of a ladybug and talks about how the temperature might affect the blueberries the workers are planting. He calls time in the garden "therapy" and says it helps veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and build camaraderie with others who have experienced conflict.
The food the volunteers harvest ends up with nearby residents or at a few local restaurants, like Carr's Corner Cafe and Captain Brian's. Jessica's Organic Farm donates all of Green Path's starter plants. "It really does take a lot of people to make something like this happen," Heiny says. Burns, who spent 56 months in a North Vietnamese prison after his F-4 was shot down in March 1968, calls Heiny "very patient and very dedicated."
Heiny says one major goal going forward is to reach younger veterans—men and women coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan. But it can be difficult to reach them through the "distractions" back home.
In the past, Tolbert, 61, worked for Keep Sarasota County Beautiful, which meant working with community garden volunteers. She joined Veterans for Common Sense after learning about the group at the annual Harvey Milk Festival. She wants to better connect female veterans, who "tend to be isolated from each other," she says. Tolbert spent eight years in the Navy and five in the Navy Reserve. Her day job with the Florida Department of Health is largely "sedentary." She likes how working in the garden gets her outside. "There's a little bit of Zen involved," she says.
Green Path Veterans Farm is located inside Orange Blossom Community Garden, 1822 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. To learn more, click here.