Warriors to Farmers helps veterans get back on their feet through horticulture
Marine Corps veteran Sebastien Lajeunesse found peace and purpose as he got his hands dirty, tilled the soil and watched the plants grow through his hard work. After being diagnosed with PTSD, it was exactly the escape he was looking for and dreaming of one day to start helping other veterans do the same.
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“Sometimes when I plant, I look down at my hands,” Lajeunesse said. “These hands once carried an M16 and were trained to destroy and kill. Now they create life. I can watch the flowers and plants appear and all the work helps you move forward. This is my goal now.
Lajeunesse started his own hop farm, St. John’s Hops in Umatilla, and started the nonprofit organization Warriors to Farmers to give other veterans with PTSD a chance to experience the same healing.
The program offers veterans a paid position on the hop farm, a peaceful and therapeutic environment, with access to counseling to help them reintegrate into society.
“A veteran has completed the program and opened his own landscaping business,” Lajeunesse said. “Our goal is to help them get back on their feet and teach them a trade at the same time.”
The nonprofit is in the process of obtaining its license to become a vocational rehabilitation center which will allow veterans to use their GI Bill to study one of three trades – agriculture, mechanics and master brewer training.
Lajeunesse will teach farming in partnership with a friend of his who specializes in the science of horticulture, Cobb Tractor will train veterans with their mechanics, and Wops Hops Brewery in Sanford will train them in brewing proficiency.
“It will take us to a whole new level,” Lajeunesse said. “We hope this will allow us to hire more veterans.”
Recently, Lajeunesse was able to bring in Rowan Sockol, a Marine Corps veteran who was struggling to get back to the daily grind.
“It’s been good for me,” Sockol said. “I feel like I’m accomplishing something and being part of something flexible that allows me to live my life, which is what I needed.”
Former Epcot bakery production manager Cindy Hunt also comes on board to manage agricultural production. His family has a long history of farming and his father and six brothers were veterans, as well as his wife, so the cause is close to his heart.
“I retired from Epcot and felt it was time to do something to help people,” Hunt said. “A lot of vets get thrown on the sidewalk and it’s just sad. They’re willing to lay down their lives for us and we don’t do anything for them in return. Sometimes they come back messed up and you don’t see it because it’s inside of them. If we can save a life through the farm, then I’ve done something.
Lajeunesse and Sockol are currently working on planting crops and repairing the farm in preparation for spring hopping. The hop has caught the attention of many Central Florida breweries who have used it to make specialty beers like “Dirty Grunt” at Crooked Can Brewery in Winter Garden and “American Hero” at American Icon Brewery in Vero Beach.
“American Icon asked us to dedicate three acres of hops solely to their production,” Lajeunesse said. “What’s great is that they donate a portion of their sales of this beverage to our Warriors to Farmers program.”
The farm needs additional items such as outdoor lighting, wood and gardening supplies, as well as cash donations to continue supporting veterans. For help, go to warriorstofarmers.org.