Soldiers returning from the United States’ violent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often face a litany of similar problems, from a fear of crowded places and other battlefield anxieties to a dearth of post-military career options and a lost sense of their patriotic mission. Meanwhile, the American family farm is a dying breed, with millions of farmers reaching retirement age and a new generation unwilling to hop on the tractor.
Yet out of these two potentially catastrophic conundrums is emerging a seemingly silver-bullet solution for both: From California to Connecticut, combat vets are turning their swords into ploughshares by taking up agriculture as a career. And this process of, as one such farmer-vet put it, becoming “creators rather than destroyers” is proving amazingly rewarding in myriad ways for their collective heart, mind, and soul.
This is the basis of the documentary film Ground Operations, which Santa Barbarans can see for the first time this Sunday when director and longtime Ojai resident Dulaine Ellis comes to town to screen her film and lead a panel discussion. Since the film’s release in 2013, Ellis has taken Ground Operations across the country for screening events, as well as launched a grassroots resource hub at groundoperations.net. Her hope is to expand that mission from Camarillo to Santa Cruz with additional events this month.
“This is huge; it’s just springing up everywhere,” said Ellis, who’s surprised at how few vets have any farming background before diving into the dirt. “But the film is not enough. If you want to impact social change, you have to engage the audience, so we’re giving the call to action. We connect the dots within the community around their food system, and the roll that veterans can play in strengthening that food system, and how to welcome them with open arms.”
After moving to Ojai in the 1980s, Ellis started wondering what would become of the farms that ripple across the Oxnard plain as she commuted to her script supervisor job in Hollywood. She blossomed into a sustainable agriculture activist, made three short documentaries on that topic, and wound up at an organic farming conference in Monterey, where she met Michael O’Gorman, head of the national Farmer-Veteran Coalition (farmvetco.org). “I just immediately knew this was such an amazing concept because it spoke to so many different challenges,” said Ellis. “It felt like all the work I had done in agriculture and filmmaking brought me to this point because this story dealt with it all.”
So far, Ground Operations is making headway in Midwestern farm towns and the Mid-Atlantic states, and Ellis would like to see her film shown on the plane back from the war zones, or at least as part of the military’s Transition Assistance Program or TAP. “There [are] all kinds of jobs in food,” said Ellis, mentioning everything from warehouse jobs to distribution networks. “If you’re in equipment repair, fixing tanks and Humvees, there are not a lot of guys here who can fix tractors and backhoes.”
Ellis laments not sparking much progress on this front in the tri counties, though she recognizes that the cost of land may be a barrier to entry. So she advocates for urban farms, including converting church lawns into commercially productive gardens or for existing farmers and ranchers to lease small plots of land to interested vets.
“The United Nations keeps saying that small farms are the way we feed 80 percent of the world and the way we need to continue to do it, but we need to strengthen those farms,” she said. “It’s not gonna be the GMOs and industrial ag. They have a part to play, and they’ll be around for quite some time. But we need a lot more balance in our food systems, and these veterans are amazing.”
Dulanie Ellis screens Ground Operations and will lead a discussion at the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery (40 E. Anapamu St.) on Sunday, November 9, at 7-9 p.m. Call (805) 640-1133 or visit groundoperations.net/events for tickets and info.