Former U.S. Army supply depot "reclaimed" as urban farm for veterans

Nonprofits Alpha Omega Veterans Services and Memphis Tilth are teaming up to start a working urban farm at the former Memphis Defense Depot. The two-acre stead, located adjacent to Alpha Omega's housing facility for homeless veterans at 2226 Ball Road, will be used to teach veterans a variety of skills and provide horticultural therapy to those who are transitioning back into society after serving in combat.

“The main goal is to find a way to engage with veterans that live or are served by Alpha Omega in the project. There is going to be an education component, life skills and job skills,” said Chris Peterson, farm manager of the Alpha Omega Veterans Services urban farm.

The Alpha Omega-owned land will be used to grow produce and fruits. Clients will also maintain a chicken coop and beehives. Around 40 percent of what’s produced will be used by Alpha Omega facilities in Memphis. Three of their six locations serve up three meals a day to veterans.

Another 40 percent of the produce will be sold to Memphis Tilth’s Bring it Food Hub. The remaining 20 percent will be sold at farmers markets. Peace Bee Farm master beekeeper Richard Underhill Of Conway, Arkansas will help set up and advise on the hives. The urban farm has been in development for around nine months.

“This provides an opportunity to our clients for horticultural therapy. There is a lot of research that’s been done on the benefits of horticultural therapy for people suffering from the issues many veterans have,” said PZ Horton, chairman of Alpha Omega. 

Memphis Tilth will also teach classes about healthy eating while providing recipes and cooking classes for the veterans. Alpha Omega branded products such as pesto, salsa, and sauces, will be eventually produced in the kitchen and sold locally.

Over the past 30 years, Memphis-based Alpha Omega Veteran Services has worked with about 10,000 veterans. Its upcoming 2-acre farm in South Memphis will provide horticulture therapy for clients. (Kim Coleman)

“It’s another opportunity. Maybe someone doesn’t want to get out in the dirt, but enjoys cooking so there’s an opportunity to learn in a commercial kitchen,” said Horton.

Alpha Omega, founded 30 years ago, already offers spaces for clients to garden. In fact, the organization already has a small garden at the Defense Depot facility where residents cultivate tomatoes, greens, peas and okra along with blueberry bushes and fruit trees.

Alpha Omega currently has 45 clients living at the Defense Depot facility. Overall, 140 are housed in six Memphis facilities.

“Over those 30 years, we’ve had about 10,000 veterans come through our program. We’re proud of the program because we’ve had a 90 to 95 percent success rate. That’s people coming into the program and then moving back into society,” said Horton.

A lot of work needs to be done before the farm turns a profit. The land itself isn’t ideal farmland.

“Because the land is Bermuda grass and low-quality soil, there is significant work to be done before planting can be done in-ground,” said Peterson.

Peterson says the land at the Defense Depot has been tested and fully remediated as the site was once used to dispose of leaking mustard gas munitions post World War II. He actually remembers studying the site in an environmental ethics class at college.

“One of the nice things for me is I think it’s a really cool way to reclaim an area that was not so well used,” said Peterson.

For several years, Alpha Omega has offered gardening options for their clients. Those have mainly been small raised bed gardens that they tended on their own.

Unfortunately, the gardens didn’t engage the vets as hoped, which led Horton to the idea of an urban farm. Production on a real farm, meanwhile, will offer more than fresh air, manual work and healthy fare. It will provide marketable skills that clients can take with them when they move on from the program.

“There are the core skills of learning to grow and raise plants. We’ll have a greenhouse — that’s a viable business idea in its own right — to start and grow seedlings, whether for sale or for use in the garden. There are post-harvest handling skills that are transferable to other industries. There will be machinery that will need to be maintained. Animals that need to be taken care of. There are a lot of different kinds of skills that can be learned,” said Peterson.

Memphis Tilth holds a three-year contract to implement the project. It has done similar urban farm projects around town at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and numerous community gardens.

“They [Memphis Tilth] are bringing community gardening, urban farming expertise to us,” said Horton.

Including Peterson, who was hired on as farm manager, there will be three full-time employees the first year. They will include an assistant farm manager/volunteer coordinator and a kitchen coordinator.

Raised beds will be built out and planted first around the end of March to early April after the last frost date.

Infrastructure will be needed to run the farm, too. A storage shed, the greenhouse, and a certified wash and pack area, for example, will be built by summer. The partners' hope is to get part of the inground planting done by the fall.

The first two years will include a lot of instruction for clients.  Alpha Omega, the primary funder of the program, will take over operations by end of the third year.

“In the military, you’ve heard of the term ‘esprit de corps’, that’s what we really want to accomplish with the farm. We want the guys to be involved with this and feel like it’s theirs,” said Horton.

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