Dave Flounders

Dave Flounders uses his love of farming to help other veterans that are struggling with homelessness and unemployment.

Making the transition from active duty to civilian life can be a difficult and sometimes lonely challenge for U.S. military veterans. In fact, the Alabama Department of Veteran’s Affairs reports that Alabama has one of the highest veteran suicide rates in the United States. Often, there are limited outlets that can help veterans deal with the physical and mental challenges they experience. Through the world of agriculture, Operation Grow works to help veterans better overcome these barriers.

Operation Grow’s Mission

Operation Grow is an Alabama Cooperative Extension System project under the Beginning Farmer Program with funding provided by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI). Through education and networking efforts, the project provides needed training for military veterans interested in agriculture.

“Serving our veterans in their farming journey is such an honor,” said Project Coordinator Harli Willis. “The resources we provide are available for all veterans and their families, and we are seeing outstanding, positive results.”

Curtis Pippin, program coordinator for the Auburn University Veterans Resource Center, is a veteran who–like others–has struggled with the transition from military to civilian life. He said Operation Grow is making a big impact on veterans’ lives.

“I believe Operation Grow and the leaders behind its development are doing all the right things to truly provide a hand up to veterans,” Pippin said. “The project is special not only because of the opportunities it provides to aspiring veteran farmers but mostly because of the connection it creates between communities and their local veterans."

A Part of Something Bigger

Dawn Smith, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Airforce, found peace in farming. After her military service, Smith started working a civilian job. However, after 10 years at that job, Smith said she felt a pull to leave that job behind to start farming. Smith and her husband are now the owners of Lone Oak Farm in Notasulga, Alabama.

“It took me 10 years after retiring from the military to figure out what I wanted to do,” Smith said. “It was very hard because I couldn’t find the same comradery as in the Airforce. I was frustrated with my job, with the environment and being in an office every day.”

Farming was new to Smith, but Operation Grow helped get her started by connecting her with regional agents, publications, online resources and other connections to Alabama Extension.

“Farming helps you become part of something bigger than yourself again, similar to what you experience in the military,” Smith said.

Getting Through the Tough Times

Dave Flounders served in the military for 31 years. As someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Flounders finds that working on his farm in Lineville, Alabama, has helped him get through tough times.

“I really enjoy the work that goes into making something grow,” Flounders said. “From starting the seeds in a greenhouse to transplanting them in a field, it is a different mindset. Watching it grow is really something special.”

Flounders uses his love of farming to help other veterans that are struggling with homelessness and unemployment. In 2015, he purchased his farm and created a veteran village called Samson’s Strength. Along with his team, Flounders created the mission and vision of fostering independence and sustainable living habits for veterans.

“I wanted to work with veterans,” Flounders said. “When you have veterans together, they get it. It’s a brotherhood or sisterhood. They are bound together by what they have been through together.”

Flounders serves Operation Grow as a member of its steering committee. This group uses their real-word experiences as veterans to guide the project in its efforts to help veterans. Flounders said that each person’s experience coming out of the military is different. That’s why having a support system like Operation Grow is so important.

“Coming out of the military and going into civilian life is very hard,” Flounders said. “They (veterans) need a strong support system, and Operation Grow can offer that.”

More Information

Operation Grow has garnered strong support from partners across the state, including the ADAI, the Alabama Department of Veteran Affairs and the Alabama Indian Affairs Commission.

Rick Pate, the commissioner of ADAI, believes this is the perfect project to help veterans.

“We have been looking for an opportunity to help veterans and beginning farmers, so it was a perfect match when Alabama Extension came to us with the Operation Grow proposal,” Pate said. “With the program’s infrastructure, I am looking forward to helping veterans get started farming.”

For more information on the Operation Grow project and its efforts, visit the Operation Grow for Military Veterans web page on the Alabama Extension website, aces.edu.

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