Love Thy Farmer: Comfort Farms

Love Thy Farmer: Comfort Farms
Photos by Jonathan Wade

“I had a Marine here recently whose wife had left him. He was at rock bottom, on the edge of suicide,” says Jon Jackson, former U.S. Army Ranger and founder of Comfort Farms in Milledgeville, Georgia. “He’s telling me all this, and I say, ‘I hear you. I understand. But right now, I’ve got vegetables to get in, eggs to pull, and pigs to catch, so let’s get to work.’” After two labor-intense days on the farm, Jon sat down with the man for another chat. “We worked our butts off, and after that, he had a different perspective.” The focus had shifted from his personal woes to the demands of farm life, which are many and never-ending.

Dirty hands, sweaty brows, and sore backs (from chasing unruly piglets) might not be the most obvious prescription for PTSD and other issues faced by veterans, yet Jon repeatedly sees how this combination of experiences and encounters can be a powerful balm for the depression, anxiety, and dark thoughts that often haunt our military service men and women when they come home from active duty. And that’s the mission of Comfort Farms: serving the veterans who’ve served us, using agriculture therapy.

Comfort Farms raises rabbits, laying chickens, and Heritage breed hogs. It also uses all organic methods to grow the produce sold at its onsite weekend market and to some of nearby Atlanta’s hottest restaurants—spots like Staplehouse, Miller Union, The Butcher The Baker, Two Urban Licks, and more. The farm earns its customers with quality products; Jackson is particularly proud of the pork. “We can’t compete with larger commercial farms, so we do what we do best, small-batch with dynamic flavor,” he says. “And that flavor is specific to where we are.” Jackson believes that hogs are like wine, that their taste is tied to where they are raised. “A hog brought up in the red clay and oak flats of middle Georgia will taste different than a hog raised in Oklahoma,” he says. Comfort Farms is also growing vegetables not common to the area, such as asparagus and artichokes, along with the standards: collards, cabbage, carrots, and lettuces, often using heirloom seeds.

The business side of the farm has been successful, but pulling vets back from the brink is Comfort Farms’ core purpose, one that Jackson created in response to a need he once had. After the diagnosis of a traumatic brain injury in 2013 led to his medical retirement from the military, he was searching for his next step. Battling PTSD and other complications related to his injury, he had his own brush with suicidal thoughts. After he made it past them, he began volunteering with programs that helped fellow veterans, and he noticed some big gaps. “I felt like some of them weren’t addressing the problems; they were more like bandages,” he said. So he started his own non-profit, STAG Vets (Strength to Achieve Greatness).

It began as a think tank tasked with finding lasting solutions for suffering vets. Jackson remembered that at his lowest point, he craved nature and open spaces, and this sprouted the idea to tap into the benefits of the hard work and fresh air essential to agriculture. He just wasn’t sure how to make it happen. In 2016, a substance abuse non-profit learned of his plans and gave him access to the land needed for a farm in return for his help with its projects, planting the first seed necessary for a STAG Vets agri-therapy program.

Next, Jackson needed a name for the operation, and Comfort made perfect sense, but not for the reason most assume. “It honors Captain Kyle A. Comfort, a guy I loved dearly who died in combat in 2010,” Jackson said. “It just works out cool that it has a dual meaning.”

Today, Comfort Farms does what its name promises: serving veterans in immediate crisis. “We’re the place for guys who need a place to go right now because they are about to do something stupid,” Jackson says. “We are a place to get them out of their own heads. Here, they have structure and discipline and a task list, like they’re used to from the military.”

They wrangle hogs, feed rabbits, fertilize and irrigate fields, and harvest crops. They do everything needed to get the farm’s multiple products ready for each weekend market and for its chef clients. Often, after just a few days immersed in the farm’s results-oriented routine, they’re able to make better sense of their thoughts and make more rational decisions about their issues and their future.

Currently, Comfort Farms has a handful of veterans helping at the farm long-term, folks who, after time on the farm, are now on more stable footing and have stayed on to help others. “They’re here to further the mission,” Jackson says. The farm also hosts another one or two veterans a week who are in more dire need of the intervention the farm offers. Groups of vets (from five to 50 at a time) sometimes make short visits with their Veterans Administration therapists. Since Jackson began this work, Comfort Farms has helped approximately 80 vets in crisis and has hosted more than 3,000 visitors overall, including other vets and their families.

While the farm doesn’t have the staff or facilities to accommodate a larger number of vets staying more than a few days right now, that’s the goal. “I want to do more, to serve more people, but I’m being kinda picky about who I want on this squad,” Jackson says. “I’m looking for people who are passionate about what we’re doing.”

Finding others who share Jackson’s devotion and vision may be a process, but sustaining his personal commitment is easy, thanks in part to the smile that greets him—and every visitor to Comfort Farms immediately upon arrival. “Kyle’s face is on the battle flag that you see as soon as you come up to the farm,” he said. “He reminds me every day why we are doing this, why we’re fighting this fight.” It’s a battle this seasoned soldier who served six combat tours knows can be as tough as the grim realities of war, just in a different way. “We do the hard stuff overseas; we were trained for it,” he said. “When we get home, we sometimes don’t have the tools to do the ‘easy’ stuff, but when we support each other, we can arm each other for anything. We can be renewed; we can win.”