By Carl Bryden
Located in Lynden, Growing Veterans is a nonprofit organization with the goal to empower veterans and community members through farming. Made up of a staff comprised mostly of veterans, the day-to-day operation is kept up by volunteers, part-time and full-time employees.
Growing Veterans has aimed to give back since before they received federal nonprofit status in 2015.
“Our mission is to empower veterans, grow food, community and each other,” Sean Dalgran, the communications and outreach manager at Growing Veterans, said. Dalgran received his bachelor’s degree from Western in 2014 from the Human Services program.
After his time in the military, Dalgran worked in the Veteran Services Office at Western while working towards his degree where he learned about Growing Veterans and got involved.
Through the work they do on the farm, their goals include, “Normalizing behaviors, sharing perspectives and growing community,” Dalgran said.
Chris Brown, a marine veteran and Purple Heart recipient, founded Growing Veterans.
“[Brown] started this program out of a necessity based on his experiences of getting out and having a lack of comradery. Not really knowing what was missing before, he knew something was wrong, something was missing, and his dad told him he should start a garden,” Dalgran said.
However, many of the volunteers at Growing Veterans are not veterans.
“We’re a veteran’s organization, not a veterans’ club. We offer opportunities to anyone who is interested,” Dalgran said.
Today, Growing Veterans partners with a variety of local businesses. At Aslan Brewery in downtown Bellingham, Growing Veterans has partnered to grow hops for their “Charlie Foxtrot” beer.
Local hot sauce company, El Fuego, is also partners with the nonprofit. Growing Veterans grow peppers, garlic and more for their “Fire in the Hole” sauce, which is available on their website.
While maintaining these relationships, Growing Veterans is annually able to “donate thousands of pounds of food to the Whatcom county food bank,” Dalgran said.
“More so than anything we want to provide comradery. We want to provide what was missing from a service member’s life when they got out of the military.” Joel Swinson, Growing Veterans farm manager and another Western alumnus, said. After his time in the service, he studied at Whatcom Community College and Western. He met the organization's founder through the Veteran Services Office on campus.
“I get a lot out of coming out here and not only be able to relate to other vets, but to have community members. I was able to practice sharing my story, which has helped me inspire more vets to come out here,” Swinson said.
Swinson, and many of the volunteers and staff members, are intrinsically tied to Bellingham schools. Coming from a diverse background of studies, the education that they received at Western or WCC has shaped their way of life.
Ashley Lefeat, one of the conservation-corps interns at Growing Veterans, graduated from Western with a master’s degree in English. After a former mentor in her life encouraged her to start coming out to Growing Veterans to volunteer, Lefeat quickly became immersed in the space. Now she is able to work on the farm and apply the skills she learned in the Navy, and in her education, to better the farm.
“So much of what I learned in the military, and what I learned studying English, overlap in ways you would not expect … A lot of problems that we come into when we’re trying to do new things comes from, ‘how do I know where to start?’ It provides you with a sense of flexibility that if you are cognizant of it, you can apply to any kind of job,” Lefeat said.
Lefeat said she did not have a lot of experience working on a farm before coming to Growing Veterans which is why the opportunity excited her. “It’s great to be bad at things — it is amazing to learn from the very bottom,” Lefeat said. “It means you can always ask more questions.”
Growing Veterans is also pet friendly, “We’re pet friendly, we’re vet friendly, we’re just a friendly, good place to come and get involved,” Dalgran said.