How Growing Things Heals War Wounds (Peter Scott)

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There’s something about working with the earth, about hearing the birds sing and about producing in the sun. It’s more than just the physical labor, says this week’s guest Peter Scott, it’s about creating and being a part of something bigger.

Peter Scott can’t talk about a lot of what he did and saw while in the military. But he can talk about the farm he now uses to help veterans like himself heal from the wounds of war and to grow food for local military and veteran families. Listen to this compelling episode now!

Some of the good stuff:

[1:40] Peter’s favorite outdoor space
[2:49] How Peter ended up farming
[10:18] How working with the earth helps heal
[13:02] What draws Peter to farming
[17:11] How farming helps heal PTSD
[21:46] How Peter is helping others through his farm
[27:39] How to get started with a farm project
[30:27] Peter’s most essential outdoor gear
[31:37] Peter’s favorite outdoor gear
[32:58] Peter’s favorite outdoor moment

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Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation on The Humans Outside Podcast. Listen to the episode on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.


AB: We talk a lot about getting outside about being in fresh air and about staying active. We’ve also had several guests here on the Humans Outside Podcast share with us the value of spending time outside while recovering from military service, something that my family has personally experienced – and of course, the reason we moved to Alaska and kicked off this whole Humans Outside thing to start with. 


For some veterans though, spending time outside isn’t just hitting the trail or going for a run, and it isn’t just a hobby. For some, it’s about giving back. Backed by becoming a part of what makes this country run, it’s about staying outside while contributing to society. For some, it’s farming. 


That’s the track Army veteran Peter Scott chose to take after leaving his military job in counterintelligence after 12 years, and he’s here today to tell us all about it. Peter, welcome to the Humans Outside Podcast.


PS: Hey, thanks, Amy. That’s quite an intro.


AB: So we like to start the show imagining ourselves in our guest’s favorite outdoor space. And you actually happen to be sitting outside while you’re talking to us, which I just love. But tell us where are we with you today if we were in your favorite outdoor space?


PS: My favorite outdoor space – you know, I got a lot of them. But I’d have to say that right about now, this time of year, with the bees outside, if you’ve done well, they’ve come through the winter. They’re small, they’re super friendly, starting to bring in all the nectar and the pollen and build out queen’s land and building out all the bees so that they can go out and do their job and make us some honey. And then get through the next year and just, you know, when it starts happening and you open up that box of bees, you can just smell it, you can smell all the flowers that they’ve visited. You can smell them working on getting the honey going, and it’s life after winter, you know, it’s a great time.


AB: That sounds just wonderful. Up here in Alaska, we haven’t quite gotten there yet.


PS: Well, we’re about three weeks earlier than we should be.


AB: Alright. So start by telling us about your military experience and how you found yourself in farming.


PS: It’s a long story. I joined up out of the military straight out of high school. I was about 18, signed up as a counterintelligence agent. You know, it was 1999, there was never going to be any conflict, you know, is all going to be peacekeeping and all that other good stuff. I was assigned to Germany. My first station, got deployed to Kosovo. And it was awesome. And then, you know, like everybody else 9/11 hit and the world changed. And I kept at it for about 10 more years after that a few deployments. You know, I went to school for language school for Arabic, deployed to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, and you know, really like, I guess the last six years of my service I spent over half of that deployed or in hardship zones, and even when back in the states still working on the on the counter-terror anti-terrorism mission, just because of my job, and just burn out, right? 


So, on my last deployment, I just sort of realized that — hey, you know, it’s time to move on. It’s not fun. It’s not doing me any good. And I’ve done my time. And so I got out and sort of flailed around for a while. You know, I was an enlisted guy, so I immediately did what I was supposed to do and enrolled in the local college and started working on my bachelor’s. That sort of went south real quick. And then I got into brewing. I found an apprenticeship at a local brewery, started doing that, started doing coursework for the science behind that, sort of moved on from that. Ended up doing some retail jobs and ended up culinary school. I managed to make it through culinary school and sort of found that I really, really liked the food. But what I liked better was sort of the growing or the making of food. So I found myself getting into, you know, a whole hog butchery, and charcuterie, salami making. I ended up going to University of Vermont to learn how to make cheese, and then ended up out at a grass fed dairy doing an apprenticeship to make cheese in Ohio for a little while.


AB: You really got around!


PS: Yeah, yeah, I had to do some soul searching you know. I got out in 2010 and let’s see, 2016 I started the farm and really, that six years in between was just soul searching and, you know, those really low times, some high times and everything in between.


AB: I know you started growing food in your friend’s backyard. It sounds just like a backyard garden. Right? 


PS: Yeah. 


AB: Did you ever expect that’s where you would land after your meandering through the post military world?


PS: Oh, no, absolutely not. You know, for a while, I was just doing it sort of as my own therapy, right? You know, just nice to be outside, nice to make your own food. I don’t know, everything tastes better when you make it. And, you know, started giving out extra stuff. I mean, you can only eat so many zucchini.


AB: Oh my gosh, also true.


PS: Yeah, they grow at an insane speed. So I started giving food to the neighbors. And then, you know, I spent a fair amount of time with the chaplain’s office at the DC VA hospital. And one day I brought in a box of veggies and said — Hey, could you give this to somebody who needs it? And they did. I’d say that’s where the thinking of — Wow, I could actually do something and feel good about it, make an impact, and maybe help some guys who have gone through a challenge similar to myself. And then I went through the Dog Tag Program. During that whole time I went away and got some help, got some treatment for PTSD and just ended up taking a year off of life. Fortunately, I’ve got a phenomenal wife who supported me through this whole time and still supports me and what I’m doing, and ended up with a program called Dog Tag Fellowship, Dog Tag Bakery. So I formulated this whole Field 4 Valor Farms concept.


AB: So for those who don’t know, Dog Tag Bakery is an actual physical bakery in Washington DC. It’s actually in Georgetown. If you ever find yourself there, you best get yourself to Dog Tag Bakery and buy some chocolate cake. Don’t ask why, just do it and get  a coffee while you’re there, because those two things go very well together. And anyway, Dog Tag Bakery basically works as an incubator for veteran small businesses. So in addition to the obvious task of baking, they help veterans learn how to run a business, from front to back of the house, top to bottom, through a fellowship essentially, and then send you into the world equipped and empowered to plug and play this in your own life. Is that an accurate description?


PS: Yeah, you’ve got the spiel down pat.


AB: Perfect. And so, they helped you get started and now you find yourself here growing veggies as a nonprofit yourself, right?


PS: Yeah, I put seeds in the ground in a friend’s backyard in 2016. If you plant a seed, it’s gonna grow no matter what you do, and it just kind of took off. So, you know, we started pretty much in an urban farm model, just outside of DC, and now we’re leasing a seven acre farm out in Southern Maryland. So, you know, we’re small, we’re growing. 


AB: Literally!


PS: Literally. So you know, mostly we do mix vegetable market garden, so just sort of your common table vegetables. And then we have an apiary, which you know, we provide honey to our family shares. And we also get new veteran beekeepers through partnership with a local beekeeper club, who put them through a beginner beekeeping program, then we provide them with their first hive of bees, which is super cool. I really like that one. 


It’s a seven acre farm, about four acres is tillable, we’ve got about half an acre in production, we’ve got the apiary, we started some small fruit orchards, bringing back some some old fruit trees that were already on the property, establishing some small fruits like raspberries, blackberries, and just trying to bring the bring the land to life. You know, one of the big things that changed for us when we got out there, as you know, it came with a farmhouse. My wife works in DC and makes money, so she decides where we live. So I needed to fill it and actually found another veteran who now lives on the farm and has been for a little over two years. And, you know, we found her in time through the Mission Continues and she was like minutes from homelessness. And she moved into the house like within the hour that she was homeless. But you know, she’s 100% disabled vet, like me, she is an Iraq war veteran. After two years, she’s, you know, paying down debt. She’s had a place to live, you know, even before we found each other, she just got a degree in horticulture. It was just a perfect fit. I’ve found that there are a lot more vets out there like that, who can benefit from being outside, gardening, and nurturing. And then you add the purpose of what we’re doing, you know, to feed vets who are struggling and their families. And it’s sort of a kind of a magic mix.


AB: Yeah, I want to get back to the helping vets thing in a minute because it’s so interesting, but first ,I want to talk about what you’re talking about growing and nurturing. Farming is not a small lift, it’s hard work. It’s a big commitment, you invest a lot, you invest a lot cashwise into all of that, right, and then you invest a lot physically. Okay. So, talk to me a little bit about why that is an important part of moving forward from war and from participation in these conflicts. What is it about that movement and that investment that is the secret sauce here?


PS: Ah, I think there are a few things that really draw me to it. You know, one is, it’s nice to be able to do something that I can tell people about. You know, as a counterintelligence agent, there wasn’t a whole lot of come home and talk about what was going on. And, you know, it just feels really good after my time of service, my time deployed, to come back and actually be creating something that, you know, there’s no ethical doubt that what we’re doing is good, right? Right. Like, there’s no ambiguity in it, that what we are doing is bringing some positivity into lives and doing some good. And you know, that’s the purpose for me. And it’s good for my mind, my soul, my heart to be doing that.


AB: There’s also something just really incredible and natural about getting your hands dirty, right? So you’re producing something that’s unquestionably beneficial, right? Yeah, eat your vegetables, but also food is good, right? But there’s also something about the movement and that hard work and just being outside in that fresh air. What do you think that is? What’s your experience on that?


PS: Oh, you know, because it’s grounding, right? Like you get out there –


AB: Again, literally!


PS: Yeah, you literally get out there and you get your hands dirty. There’s all this talk about beneficials for your mental health, in the dirt. But you know, to be physically doing, and just find that, that moment of peace, that moment of Zen where you’re just totally present. Right? You know, gardening and the physical labor does it, for sure. But I like to say, nothing puts you in the present moment, like opening up a box of 20,000 stinging insects. 


Yeah, you know, you’re just there, you’re present, you know your purpose is good and well intentioned. And, and it just feels good. The sun shines, the wind blows, you know, in the summer it gets brutal. But still, you know, you get that physical activity and you know, farming is a skilled labor, right? Like, there’s no shortage of knowledge that you need to run a productive farm or run a productive, anything agricultural, and so you constantly use your mind, you’re focusing on the present moment, you’re looking at the details and you’re just in a healthy environment. Right, you know, with you know, all the COVID crazy going on right now, everybody says get outside. But you know, I’ve already been working on my farmer’s tan, even before this started! So, you know, it’s good for you. We should spend time outside, we should move, we should do things. Just by virtue of doing that, we’re also connecting with people, with our community. 


AB: Another really incredible part about your Fields 4 Valor project is that you aim to feed military families and to feed veteran families. Many of our listeners might not know why military or veteran family hunger is an issue or even a thing. Can you fill us in a little bit about that?


PS: Well, here we go. So, the time I took off, this is where I realized that the time I took off, I ended up going inpatient for PTSD TBI treatment for about half a year. And you know, the population that’s there is you know, it’s the old Vietnam vets, it’s a onesie twosie the first Persian Gulf, and then it’s a whole bunch of new Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. But the key thing I noticed was there are a lot of guys – so it’s a mandatory like 30 day stay to do the program. I ended up staying six months, you know, and they do treatments that really help, like prolonged exposure, different types of therapies that just help you put your time in service into perspective and help you move on. But a lot of the younger guys who had families, who had jobs, were trying to make it happen, they ended up not staying even though they knew they needed the treatment. And they ended up not staying because they needed to pay bills. And, you know, not big bills. It was like 500 bucks here 200 bucks there. And it just really bothered me.


And then through that, you know, that initial act of bringing those veggies in and giving them to people is like, you know, if we, if we sort this out, we could really make a difference. Nobody’s collecting information on hunger in veterans, really. There’s information out there on poor diets in veterans, like, you know, Wounded Warrior did a study and I think they said, you know, it’s something like the 60% of veterans eat zero fresh vegetables a week. Some ridiculous number like that. But you know, when you go through the numbers and you kind of extrapolate it, of the age group that is, you know, the recent wars, they’re getting out, they have to reinvent themselves. They have to start a new career, start at the bottom, get an education, and they have to support a family while they’re doing that. And you know, you’re a spouse, so you know. You move around with your service member, and you don’t grow your career. It’s hard to make a transportable career. 


And every time I’ve sort of brought up the program to areas where vets who could use the help exist, we’ve been inundated. Like, we just can’t support that many. So what I end up doing is going word of mouth and finding a few local folks that could use it for the year, because once your food insecure for a week, you’re food insecure for the rest of the year, right? 


We estimate, and you know, operating from Prince George’s County in Maryland, there’s probably about 5000 families that could need food assistance. And because they’re veterans, they may not meet the requirements, or they may not be low enough to meet the requirements for food benefits.


AB: And PG County, it’s not a cheap place to live. Right? 


PS: It’s right next to DC. As a family of four, which is what the average is, sort of a target of the population, you’ve probably got to bring in 100 grand a year just to, you know, make it by, maybe start saving, let alone save for college for your kids, your own retirement, or get treatment, take time off.


So we think with our current property we can get up to about 300 families and make an impact. Delivering, you know, $100 of fresh food week, year round is the goal.


AB: Yeah. What is the reaction from the families who you bring in?


PS: They love it. I’ve had people come in and tell me like — Oh, we started juicing or have gone vegan and getting into their health, getting into cooking. You know, our target population is disabled vets who are just separated, have a family, and are trying to figure it out. There’s a lot of guys, just around, recovering, healthcare, taking care of themselves. And so they take up cooking, you know, they start eating healthier. I even had one family whose daughter had an injury in the brain, and the medication they were giving her was horrible, and they ended up mixing it with the honey, and it became a treat. So just really touching moments.


AB: Do you have any families who are interested in coming out to help on the farm and to get, you know, get their hands dirty? Literally?


PS: Yeah, yeah, we do. There’s a great veteran farmer training program just across the river in Virginia, Arcadia Food, and I’ve been able to pull vets who are interested in farming and are also working with various degrees of challenges post service. They come out and that’s where we get our main volunteers. But we’re trying to grow it because labor is a big issue. We’re all volunteers right now. And with the coronavirus our volunteer days are a little limited right now.


AB: Just for context, while we’re recording this, this is the very beginning really of the coronavirus-ness here in the US. This episode won’t air for a while and hopefully when that happens, this will all be over, but right now, not not so much. It is really the peak of the uncertainty. It’s the mid March and it’s that sort of the peak of not knowing what’s gonna happen. Well, I hope it’s the peak. Let’s put it that way.


PS: But you know, we also get, most guys come out and just want to sit outside on the farm for like, an hour a week.


AB: Yeah. Tell me about that. Like, why do they do that? I mean, I know why I think we know why they do that. What do they say about why they want to do that?


PS: Just like — I need a moment to myself, man. Right? You know? And sometimes they come out and they want to do something physical, like, you know, fix a weed whacker. Sometimes they just want to cut some grass. Sometimes they just come out and stare at the bees, watch them fly back and forth. The hardest part coming back from service is not letting it haunt you. Right? Depending on a few things, and I think most people who served overseas can relate to something from, you know, from the level of the smallest thing you could think of to the most battle hardened, Special Forces operator, right? Like, I think if you served you get it, and you just need, you need a moment. Right?


AB: I think that’s true also for so many of our first responder families, you know, even if you’re, quote, unquote, just an officer of the peace, you’re still faced with decisions every day where things can go one way or the other, and you’re just doing your best and doing what your orders are, right?


PS: And even beyond that, I think it’s just totally human, you know, getting in an argument with your wife or with your kid or you grew up in a violent neighborhood or, you know, whatever, right? You just need a moment to chill out and realize the world’s okay.


You don’t get that inside, right?


AB: No, not at all. 


PS: You don’t get it.


AB: No, but most of the folks we talked to on this show have some sort of connection with the outside in the form of physical fitness or some kind of movement, which of course you’re doing too. But I love what you’re doing because and what we’re talking about, because it’s not just physical fitness, right? It’s also nurturing, which is a word you used earlier, and growing. It’s that pairing. And that seems to be really key for you and for the people you work with.


PS: Yeah. And beyond that, you know, it’s just being in tune with the seasons and what’s going on around you. Like, you know, when you garden or you beekeep, you see, you see everything. You know when a new bug comes out, when the flowers are starting to bloom, when the leaves are going to come out. When it starts getting colder, you know when you’re gonna get a frost, or when it’s gonna be too hot, or too dry, or too moist. You know, you’re just tuned in to the moment of what’s going on around you. And it’s not, you know, like, you’re not focusing on anything negative, you just, you’re just taking it in. It’s very, very peaceful, zen-like.


AB: If you were going to dish out advice for someone wanting to get into farming and growing on a small scale to really, like they listen to you just talk about this and they think — man, that is what I need. Give us two tips for people who want to get started. Give us some advice.


PS: Find yourself a mentor, find yourself a training program, and start smaller than you think. Right? Start smaller than you think. One of my mentors, I asked her — How many times did it take to make you feel like you knew what you were doing? Is there a magic repetition number or anything like that? And she said — Pete, I’ve been farming for 12 years, which means I’ve only ever farmed 12 times. It’s a lot to take in and you can’t rush it. Even with all the most expensive machinery and technology, it still takes time to convert the land to a fertile field. It still takes time to understand the different growth development of plants. And it takes a lot of labor. You know, a lot of physical labor. And once you see those plants start growing, you’re gonna want to save them. You’re gonna want to save them from the bugs, from the weeds. And just start with something you can manage, you know, and if you need to make money, start small in your backyard or a neighbor’s. Get some experience and work your way up.


AB: If people want to know how to get involved in your project, even if they’re not in the DC area or they’re not people who can benefit from the farm box, how do they get involved? What do you need?


PS: We need people and money. That’s what we need. 


We’re really low budget, sort of bootstrapping. It would be great to transition from an all volunteer basis to actually being able to pay some of these vets who are coming out and working and helping them out in that way. 


Our main media tool right now is Facebook. It seems to be the best. We’re hoping to have our website back up and running, I fed it a box of hand grenades a few days ago, and so it’s a little not functioning, or a lot not functioning. But Facebook – Fields 4 Valor Farms on Facebook. 


AB: Awesome, and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes. 


Alright, so we’re at the part of our show where we talk about just a couple of leftover things, our favorite gear, that kind of thing. And like I said, most of the people we talked to her out adventuring in the outdoors, running, hiking, fishing, that kind of thing. So their gear is related to that. So I’m actually really interested to hear what you think of as your favorite outdoor item.


PS: I’ve listened to a few of your podcasts and read the questions. I’ve been looking forward to this one. It’s definitely different. So my most crucial piece of equipment right now is, you know, I’m a big guy, you know, I’m not like a woolly mammoth. I got some hair, but uh, I had to move away from the belt. So the big like contractor suspenders are a lifesaver out in the farm. Because overalls get too hot in the summer and you do a lot of bending, a lot of kneeling, a lot of crouching, carrying, and my belly hair thanks me for those suspenders. It’s improved my life greatly.


AB: I can’t say I personally have that problem, it’s probably a good thing. But if we have people listening who are like — yes suspenders sound like life! Where does a person purchase this magical item?


PS: Carhartt makes some good clip-on suspenders.


AB: Right, all right. I like it. So that’s your most essential. Do you have a favorite? Is it the same thing as that or is it something different?


PS: Yeah, I was thinking about that. So you know, outside, farming, tall grass, working the property, Mid Atlantic – we get a lot of texts. I bought for the crew a couple years ago and will probably buy it again, some the light long sleeve, self wicking, impregnated with – I forget what it’s called – but impregnated to ward off ticks.


AB: Yes, it’s got some sort of coating on it.


PS: Yeah, I think it’s permethrin or something like that. Totally essential.


AB: Totally. Ticks are not fun.


PS: We’ve got some yard chickens that run around the farm. They do a good job eating up ticks, but you know, they’re still out there. We got some deer and the squirrels, they live on the squirrels, so they actually like drop down from the trees. 


AB: Yeah, we don’t have ticks here in Alaska. But when we lived in Tennessee, it was absolutely a problem. So I hear ya. 


If you close your eyes and think about your most favorite moment outside ever, where are you and what are you doing?


PS: Oh, I thought about this one too. So when I was a kid, I grew up in Massachusetts, and you know, from the age of about like, 4 to 12 every year for my birthday, which always falls around Columbus Day, so it’s usually a long weekend, we would go hiking. It was always the fall in New England, there was still coloring on the trees and everything crunching on the ground. It’s nice and cool. And it would just be my family, you know, my dad, my brother, not usually my mom, but then you know, one of our friends or a couple of friends, and we just go for a day hike. Hike up in the White Mountains, or even farther south. And it was just always an awesome day, you know, and those are some of my best memories. And right now I’ve got a son who’s six years old. And so, so you know, the past couple years I’ve been able to relive that a little bit. Yeah, I got a little bit of tears in my eyes talking about it. But it’s a wonderful experience, but I really hope to pass it on to my child.


AB: Peter, thank you so much for being on the Humans Outside Podcast today. We appreciate it.

PS: Thanks, Amy.

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