Veterans Find Strength and Healing at Comfort Farms
Jon Jackson isn’t the first person to think that food can be healing, but for him, that’s literally true. He recently discovered that growing food heals him and other veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“The earth is healing and food is healing,” Jon says.
Although he’s a native of New Jersey, Jon has always loved gardening. In 2015, after his 6 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger were over, Jon decided to turn his gardening hobby into much more – becoming a farmer with a mission.
Jon founded STAG Vets Inc. in 2015. The acronym stands for “Strength To Achieve Greatness,” and Comfort Farms is a key part of the Stag Vets mission to heal veterans. So far they have helped over 700 vets. Comfort Farms is named for Jon’s friend Kyle Comfort, an Army Ranger who died in Afghanistan in 2010.
Comfort Farms gives vets a way to transition back to civilian life more slowly, fighting with nature and pests rather than a human enemy. Jon will tell you, “I’m building a bridge to what vets do in war – using all your abilities to fight another war, this one with Mother Nature.”
Jon calls it “agri-therapy.”
Comfort Farms is not only a healing place for veterans with PTSD and other issues; it has become integral to the community around it.
Comfort Farms is located just outside the small college town of Milledgeville, Georgia, in central Georgia. Jon chose Milledgeville mainly because of its proximity to the veteran’s hospital in nearby Dublin, Georgia, the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center, where Jon and many of the vets at Comfort Farm get treatment.
Milledgeville is a town of less than 100,000 people, located along the Oconee River in central Georgia, about two hours southeast of Atlanta. It was founded in 1803 and named for the then-governor, John Milledge. It’s also home to the Georgia Military College and Central Georgia Technical College.
Comfort Farms frequently interacts with the community in several ways. They post notices on their Facebook page about days when their farmer’s market is open, when meats are for sale (for instance Christmas hams), and more. Last December people from the community came in and helped build raised beds at the farm. Comfort Farms also produces seeds to give to the local high school.
Comfort Farms is a business as well as a place of therapy. Here’s a typical offering from an October farmer’s market at Comfort Farms last year: Cinderella Pumpkins (limited quantities), Pie Pumpkins (limited quantities), Carnival Squash, Zucchini, Sweet Dumpling Squash, Green Tomatoes, Slicing Tomatoes, Sweet Corn, Japanese Sweet Potatoes, Red Potatoes, Cucumbers, Jalapenos, Green Beans, Free Range Eggs, Honey Dew Melons, Wildflower Honey.
Comfort Farms welcomes many visitors, and not just from the local area.
In 2016, Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern stopped by Comfort Farms. Zimmern witnessed firsthand how Jon and the vets grow organic vegetables and raise heritage animals. Jon roasted an American Mulefoot pig and a Mangalista pig for Zimmern and his crew.
Jon appreciated the visit from Zimmern, noting, “He did an excellent job of portraying the veterans as empowered, not as victims. We don’t want the vets to be seen as pitiful. His show did a really good job at portraying the issues that we have, and also the camaraderie that we have with the community. When people see the episode they really want to get out here, because they all want to eat the food that we had on the Zimmern show.”
Comfort Farms grows animals as well as vegetables and fruits on its 25 acres.
Jon sells pork, beef, and rabbit products to the community. He is justifiably proud of the quality of the meat. There are no hormones, steroids, or antibiotics in the meat.
“Heritage animals” [endangered animals] are a crucial part of Comfort Farms, in addition to the cows, chickens, and goats. Jon breeds the American Mulefoot pig, which is on the endangered species list. There are only several hundred of the rare pigs in the United States.
Jon is proud of the pork products they offer for sale to the public and to restaurants. “Our pork takes longer to grow, and it’s raised out in the dirt, and in the woods. They have a much more dynamic flavor. Our pork has red meat like beef. We actually call it the original red meat since pigs were domesticated first. Also there is great marbling in the meat. The pigs eat wild persimmons, plums, hickory nuts, acorns, all types of different fauna and grubs, and then they get some farm vegetables.”
Industry insiders understand that Comfort Farms’ meat is superior. Chef Kevin Gillespie (an American chef, author and former Top Chef contestant — and a former co-owner and executive chef at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta) bought a whole hog from the farm and took second place at an event called Hogs for a Cause in 2017.
Chefs who prize the vegetables, fruits and meats grown on Comfort Farms often work at high-end restaurants all over middle Georgia, including: Brad Stevens of Dovetail in Macon; Chef Nick Leahy at Saltyard; Chef Daniel Andre of the Buckhead Club; El Super Pan Chef Hector Santiago; Sean Roberts, Chef at Blue Tick Mercantile; Chef Mike Bertozzi from Two Urban Licks.
Jon also likes to be innovative. In early 2018 he added aquaponics (fish farming) to Comfort Farms. Jon is excited about the possibilities. “We’ll grow about 400 fish a year. We plan on using native species like the white bass, striper, crappie, and bluegills.”
Jon explains how he will feed the fish, which offers a glimpse of the inter-dependency of farm life. “We will feed the fish black soldier fly larvae from our rabbit feed and manure. The larvae are high in Omega 3 and protein — a great source of nutrients for our hogs, our chickens, and soon our fish.”
John is already planning how he will sell the fish. “We plan on doing a smoked fish and smoked fish dip. We will use herbs from the garden for the dip.”
Growing a thriving agribusiness that happens to be a non-profit is a challenge, and Jon is well aware of the obstacles.
“We’re facing a lot of issues the same as a lot of other small farmers, being able to get our products from field to fork. Big agriculture has all the logistical means and things. That’s one of the problems we’re trying to solve at Stag Vets, being able to create that infrastructure for supply.”
Despite not having a formal education in agriculture or business, Jon has an uncanny knack for knowing what the farm will produce well, and what the public will like.
Organic produce and chemical-free meat are popular. Although the farm is not Certified Organic yet, Jon is striving for that. Sustainable farming is his passion.
Partnerships are also critical.
Georgia College recently conducted studies for Comfort Farms, with members of a Geology class testing the soil. The studies will be conducted until May 7th 2018. At that time Comfort Farms will gain valuable insight on the soil structure of the land and how they can continue to build the soil for the future and sustainability of the farm.
In addition to selling to the public, Jon has plans to teach vets agribusiness and about growing sustainably, and he wants to start a culinary school focusing on growing as well as cooking.
“We also partner with regional and national chefs and we have a culinary school we work with, Helms College in Macon. They’ve purchased some hogs from us, and we have some future collaborations in the works,” Jon says.
Jon is not only passionate about farming, he also loves to cook. He sees the two as inextricably bound together. “We’re planning a commercial kitchen on the farm, and catering will probably be a huge thing for us — farm to table.” A Comfort Farms cookbook is also planned.
In just two years, Jon Jackson has done several remarkable things: he has given veterans a lifeline for healing; he has reached out to his community and in return been embraced by them; and he has started a thriving agribusiness. He also wants to open more Comfort Farms, in Georgia and in other states.
Jon loves to sit down at the end of the day and eat a meal that he has seen grown on the farm – roasted ears of corn, salads made from vegetables pulled out of the ground minutes before, meat from one of his animals. What he eats represents so much more than simply a meal.
Food truly equals healing, for Jon and so many other veterans.