- Photos by Jamie Melchert
Unique Veterans Urban Farm is safe and welcoming
Lace up your work boots and put on your gardening gloves as we explore a place you might have overlooked. Once you know a little bit more about this distinctive veteran’s project, you will likely see this as a unique approach to support our local veteran population.
There is a bountiful garden with a wide variety of plants, wildlife, and nature tucked away near the heart of the Columbia. The agricultural wonder—the Veterans Urban Farm—is located at the intersection of College Avenue and Smith Street. This project falls under the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, a larger non-profit organization.
The gardens at the Smith Street location are not new as they were formerly the CCUA farm for a decade, prior to the construction of the Columbia Agriculture Park next to the Activity and Recreation Center at 1679 W. Ash St. The Veterans Urban Farm got its start in 2020.
“This space is specifically by veterans for veterans,” says Dustin Cook, veterans program manager at CCUA. “I am a veteran and the program participants who help me with this program on a routine basis—we all share this idea that any veteran should be able to come here. They should feel at home, feel safe, feel welcome.”
More than a sanctuary
At first glance, the tiny farm seems ideal for veterans to come and connect with fellow veterans in a quiet and peaceful setting. But the farm is much more than a sanctuary. Dustin says local veterans are involved with the Veterans Urban Farm in a variety of ways.
First, the program provides agricultural-based vocational training through a partnership with the Veterans Administration transitional work program, and therapeutic gardening activities through partnership with VA recreational therapy and whole health programs.
Next, the program brings in veteran volunteers through the growing season.
The farm also hosts several veteran-oriented, family friendly public events each year including a resource fair and a Veterans Day meal.
The diminutive farm’s proximity to the Harry S. Truman VA Hospital is fitting because the program is tied to the VA via a memorandum of understanding, making it possible for the farm to host veterans in both inpatient and outpatient programs. The agreement primarily centers around three programs: transitional work, recreational, and whole health.
Finally, an unintended consequence Dustin says he has found with the farm’s work with veterans is that veterans open up about their needs (in some cases) and he is able to connect with other resources to assist veterans.
“It is something about being outside and being in this place that makes people comfortable,” Dustin explains. “Sometimes they tell me things that they may not have shared with anybody, and I do my best to help them out by picking up the phone and making a few calls.”
In the short time that the program has been in place, Dustin notes that hundreds of local veterans have been supported through the program’s efforts. Perhaps not surprisingly, as Columbia has so often done in the past in pioneering community and civic services, the program is piquing interest among groups in other areas. ram located right here–you are not alone.
Dustin is currently working with three other cities that are striving to provide similar urban farm programs for their veterans in their communities to recreate the veterans farm model: Memphis, Tenn., Leavenworth, Kan., and Poplar Bluff, Mo.
“So far, it looks like we have other sites in the region who are going to stand-up programs like this,” Dustin adds.
In addition to providing a program model for other communities, the Smith Street site continues to grow and expand. A new construction project on-site is in its final phases. After completion the site will provide an ADA accessible location for disabled veterans to get fully engaged with the program. A large arbor structure has been built with raised garden beds at the perfect height for veterans who might be in wheelchairs. The project, known as the Warrior’s Garden, provides a shady, flat, yet open space, to accommodate veterans with disabilities.
Dustin noted that he is a 10-year veteran of the Missouri Army National Guard. After leaving the military, he became an educator for several years in public education. He said that CCUA and the Veterans Urban Garden have now captured his passion, which is continually inspired by the feedback he receives from veterans.
In addition to helping veterans develop and sharpen vocational skills, the farm provides a healthy space for veterans to work and share their experiences among comrades. Dustin said that, in his opinion, the best way to solve issues that veterans might be experiencing is through community support.
“This organization is a part of the community, and we are working to improve the lives of veterans,” he adds. “If communities don’t support the veterans in those communities, then the problems will never get better. Veterans can’t get better all on their own.”
Army veteran Erich Wilson, who has worked at the Veterans Urban Farm for over two years, said he thinks that the program provides an excellent environment for him to work with his fellow veterans. He made that comment recently while he was walking the grounds at the farm with his fellow Army buddy, Teddy Locastro, on a warm, sunny afternoon.
“This is just a positive place for veterans to come who are starting over,” Erich continued. “It’s a good place to hang out. Everybody here is nice and positive.”
As Erich walked the grounds, he smiled as he talked about his experiences working with the trees, crops, and the people. He said that in his time at the Veterans Urban Farm he has not only helped nurture the crops, but he also has built some strong bonds with his fellow veterans who are also drawn to the unique place.
“It’s an awesome place,” he said. “It’s a safe place. We welcome anybody and everybody.”
Jamie Melchert is a long-time Columbia resident who enjoys the arts, entertainment, and the outdoors. Among his work experiences, he is most proud of his military service with the Missouri Army National Guard. He now enjoys traveling with his wife and family to destinations near and far. Jamie is exploring old and new places to help residents like him, as well as newcomers, (re)discover COMO.