Combat to the kitchen: how agriculture helped sprout a new passion

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Courtesy of Mark Benoit

By Kaylah Jackson

Buying produce is part of the usual grocery trip and chances are, you might have bought a BrightFarms product for family dinner. What you might not know is one of the Head Growers behind your healthy meal is a veteran.

Mark Benoit, joined the Army National Guard in New York state and took an opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan on active duty but after spending 3 years overseas both as an infantryman and private contractor, his morale started to dwindle.

“Year one you’re wrapped up in the flag and you’re excited to go, you wanna be an infantry soldier and you wanna do your job. When I came back year two, it was less about being wrapped up in the flag and more about justice. I don’t know what year three was about. It was just the way life was at that point and time and I got kinda burnt out at doing it,” said Benoit.

During his last deployment, he was tasked with staking out land for engineers to build their projects but during a break in between digging in the hot sun, he observed something odd.

“I remember it being really hot, having all of my battle rattle on, sweating, and I gave the pick ax off to one of my Afghan counterparts. I pulled out the binoculars to look around and I noticed an individual down by the road digging with a pix ax like we were,” he said.

Like many of the soldier’s experiences overseas, seeing someone dig a hole is usually a red flag.

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Courtesy of Mark Benoit

“Your gut drops and the first thing you’re thinking is I’m probably gonna have to shoot this guy at some point and as unfortunate as that is, people tend to dig because they wanna place roadside bombs and I couldn’t live with myself if I let that happen.”

After watching him all day, Benoit realized he wasn’t digging to place a roadside bomb. In fact, he was a farmer creating an irrigation ditch that flowed into a terrace landscape to help his crops. That day was the turning point he realized he needed a career change. He went to his project manager and explained he fulfilled all his duties and was ready to return home.

“I was on a plane to Kabul, Kabul to Dubai, Dubai to JFK. From JFK I took the train to Rensselaer train station. I took a cab to my mothers and I got in my car and drove to college the next day,” said Benoit.

He enrolled in the agriculture school at SUNY Cobleskill but it didn’t take long for him to recognize the rigor of classes and being in a campus environment was a stark difference from the combat zone he was in, just three days earlier.

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Courtesy of Mark Benoit

“I found it very difficult to be compassionate and caring about these complaints that they had to study for eight hours or they had to study for a test tomorrow, or they had a project they hadn’t started,” said Benoit. “My only comparison was ‘Hey, I’m above ground, my friends next to me around getting shot and killed and I’m not getting blown up and rocketed and mortared anymore. It’s a good day. I’ll study for ten hours–I don’t care.”

Mark is now the Head Grower of the BrightFarms Capitol Greenhouse, in Culpeper, Virginia where he helps the local produce company build an apprentice grower program that he hopes will help veterans coming back from war by offering them a long-lasting career of value and meaning in the same way he has found.

The BrightFarms Apprentice Grower Program is open to individuals with education or experience in agriculture and was designed with the focus of helping veterans find meaningful and fulfilling work, while coping with the emotional stressors of integrating back to civilian life.

The apprentices are full-time, benefitted employees who work alongside growers in BrightFarms greenhouses in Culpeper, Virginia; Rochelle, Illinois; and Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. Another is being built in Wilmington, Ohio; and 10-15 more are anticipated in the next 3 years.

“We cultivate talent in our intensive Apprentice Grower Program with the hope that within a year’s time, we can deploy these individuals to run programs at our other greenhouses across the country,” said Benoit.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the program send an email to info@brightfarms.com and in the subject line, write “Apprentice Grower Program” and introduce yourself.

Connect: @Kaylahchanel | Kaylah@connectingvets.com

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