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Agriculture, behavioral health combo lessons are part of VA FARMS pilot program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The keeping of bees in his backyard helped one of West Virginia’s elected officials find some peace during part of his time on the U.S. Marine Corps.

After a stressful day, “I would go out and take a white bucket, turn it upside down and watch the bees and it would help calm me down,” said Kent Leonhardt, now the state agriculture commissioner and a Marine Corps retiree.

Kent Leonhardt

“We know that there are some healing powers in agriculture.”

He recently sat down with the first participants in the Veterans Affairs Farming and Recovery Mental Health Services, or VA FARMS, pilot program which is a combination behavioral health care services and agricultural vocational training workshop lasting eight weeks.

Along with the state Department of Agriculture, partners include the Hershel “Woody” Williams Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cabell County and Marshall University’s Department of Social Work.

West Virginia is one of ten pilot sites those with the Veterans Health Administration Office of Rural Health selected nationwide, but Leonhardt said he sees no reason to stop at ten locations.

Eventually, he would like to see VA FARMS roll out statewide and nationwide to help reverse declines in the agricultural workforce.

“I want the veterans to see that there’s an opportunity in agriculture,” Leonhardt said.

The first group of veterans involved in the VA FARMS pilot program is now entering a second week of training. Participants have come from western West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Ohio.

In all, the training will continue into May with a mixture of classroom lessons at the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center and field work.

Already, for example, participants have learned to tap maple trees.

Next month, Dr. Kim White, an assistant professor of social work at Marshall University, is scheduled to present a one-day workshop on mindfulness.

Dr. Kim White

“We’ll be using mindfulness-based strategies to look at how a veteran currently copes with mental health symptoms — like symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression — and looking for alternatives and practicing some of those alternatives,” explained White.

The goal was to train veterans to better focus on the present.

“Often, negative feelings arise when we’re functioning on automatic pilot. Our body’s doing one thing. Our mind is doing another thing, but our body is involuntarily responding, physiologically, to thoughts that we have,” she said.

Over time, such stress can take a serious toll on overall health.

To address that, White, a U.S. Navy veteran, and Keigan Abel-Brown, a graduate assistant, developed a mindfulness curriculum specifically for veterans.

“I do think my experiences as a veteran and as the daughter of a combat veteran who had post-traumatic stress disorder, I think that’ll really bridge any gap there and culturally help me understand them and help them understand me,” she said.

She’ll repeat her workshop several times this year.

The other participating locations are the following:

– Canandaigua VA Medical Center,
– VA Maryland Health Care System,
– VA Puget Sound Health Care System,
– VA Caribbean Health Care System,
– Madison VA Medical Center,
– VA Hudson Valley Health Care System,
– VA Butler Health Care System,
– VA Portland Health Care System,
– VA New Jersey Health Care System.

In West Virginia, eight-week cycles for future participants in the VA FARMS pilot program continue through the end of Dec. 2019.

“I think the veterans are going to come away with quite a bit of useful information,” said Leonhardt. “And they may even come away with a beehive or two.”

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