DALLAS (AP) — An assemblage of soil-filled plastic buckets stood at the ready, and Operation Rooftop was officially underway. For former soldiers Steve Smith and James Jeffers, it was just another mission in their quest to change Dallas' eating habits through an urban farming enterprise they call Eat The Yard.
With the aid of a winch, a scissor lift and a half-dozen volunteers, they hoisted buckets of soil 30 feet up through an opening in the ceiling of a West Dallas design studio. There, on the roof, the buckets would be dotted with the starts of watermelons, lemon cucumbers and Malabar climbing spinach.
"Part of why I love this after being in the military is there's a lot of problem-solving," said Jeffers, who deals with the lingering effects of traumatic brain injury suffered after a car bomb blast in Baghdad. "It's given me meaning and drive."
Eat The Yard is among a growing number of farming programs started by or for veterans around the country. Besides offering ample job opportunity and the benefits of working outdoors, advocates say the work can be therapeutic.
"You'd be surprised at the things you get off your chest," said Smith, who, like Jeffers, did two tours of duty in the Middle East. "You may not want to talk to a psychiatrist, but out here you're weeding and pulling strawberries and the next thing you know, you've just gotten a bunch of stuff off your chest. We're doing group therapy in the dirt."
According to a 2008 Rand Corp. study, nearly 20 percent of military service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
"I don't think anybody who goes over there doesn't come back a little stressed out," Smith told The Dallas Morning News (http://dallasne.ws/1865dMa). "You come back different, that's for sure."
Traumatic experiences buried deep are hard to unearth in a counselor's office. Farming and gardening can offer comfort unavailable elsewhere, even for those who insist they don't need help.
"You get a bunch of vets together, and it's a way to sneak in a little therapy without hurting any egos," Smith said. "All they really need to do is talk about it. Like our grandfathers did."
Smith and Jeffers met in the Army's 1st Cavalry Division but lost touch when Jeffers was deployed for his first tour in Iraq. They randomly reconnected in Kuwait several years later.
Both served two tours in the Middle East, but it was Jeffers who suffered the most damage: He's got memory issues, the result of his brain injury and concussions suffered in a series of other close calls.
He had come back to Dallas, not doing much of anything and frustrated to be on disability. Smith had already been growing vegetables in his yard and talking with others about the idea of for-profit urban farming but couldn't find anyone willing to do it.
"James was just sitting around collecting disability checks," Smith said. "He said, 'I need to do something.' I said, 'Let's do it, then.' I wanted to help him out, and I wanted a buddy I could trust. It just worked out."
With help from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a Davis, Calif.-based group offering resources and education to veterans pursuing farming careers, they bought a tractor, then found grocers like Oak Cliff's Urban Acres willing to buy their goods.
Next they found local property owners willing to offer land in exchange for produce, and since then, Eat The Yard has blossomed from a two-lawn operation to half a dozen Oak Cliff yards covering about an acre in all. A Preston Hollow resident has offered land for an orchard, and several other businesses are considering rooftop gardens too.
Smith and Jeffers strive to be green, composting vegetable waste to grow new veggies and turning restaurants' discarded oil into biodiesel fuel for their vehicles.
"We're not shipping vegetables in from California, we're not refrigerating them, we're not storing them in coolers for four weeks," Smith said. "It's not only more energy-efficient, it's more nutritious."
Now Eat The Yard is among efforts like the Veteran Farmers Project at Nebraska's Center for Rural Affairs and Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots, at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture. The work ethic instilled by the military makes vets a good fit for farming, advocates say.
"Our mission is to mobilize veterans to feed America," said Ross Erickson, who does vet outreach for the coalition.
Smith and Jeffers hope to recruit other vets to their cause. "We want to get vets interning with us and into paying jobs," Jeffers said.
But that's down the line. For now, Eat The Yard is powered by volunteers like Mariana Griggs, a community garden proponent who teaches biology at El Centro Community College and was among those helping to install the rooftop garden at Mecca Design.
"Plants are living things," Griggs said between rounds of soil-bucket carrying. "If you learn how to take care of a living thing, you learn to take care of yourself."
Studio owner George Mecca was happy to offer his rooftop for an entrepreneurial effort he recognized as more than just bluster.
Smith "said he had an idea and then he showed up with two water-collection tanks," Mecca said. "That's somebody who's not just talking to me at a party. He didn't just have a bunch of magazines about what he wants to do; he had a yard full of plants."
For Jeffers and Smith, promoting healthy eating is a cause they can believe in.
"It's something to be involved in that's bigger than myself," Jeffers said. "Like the Army."
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com