Farming is a powerful experience for many of us involved. Now, as we learn more about mental health, there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest it’s a healing one as well — especially for returning veterans.
This was a major theme the indie documentary Comfort Farms, which was produced and directed by Carlisle Kellam, tried to articulate, albeit in a bit of a murky delivery. The title refers to America’s first Veterans Acute Crises Agriculture Center created by Stag Vets Inc. and founded by the nonprofit’s executive director, Lt. Jonathan Jackson, who’s mission in life changed after a suicide attempt.
The documentary, which won the Grand Jury prize for Best Documentary Feature at Film Invasion Los Angeles 2020, follows an unlikely group of veterans, animal-loving butchers, farmers, and chefs, and it was filmed in Milledgeville, Georgia.
Jackson and a few of his colleagues involved with the center are the primary subjects of this film. They go back and forth talking about the struggles returning veterans face and the societal misconceptions they encounter. Without the direction of a narrator, there is a fair bit of meandering through this before the film gets to the actual core that is Comfort Farms — named in honor of the fallen Army Ranger Capt. Kyle A. Comfort. (Unfortunately, the film barely mentions this in passing.)
The next half of the film goes into the program Comfort Farms provides, and with Jackson and his colleagues explaining their own mental health struggles and how their time on the farm helped with their healing.
The crisis center’s program is focused around agro-cognitive behavioral therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy using agriculture, heavily reliant on the raising, caring for, and harvesting of animals. While this is a relatively new concept without a lot of hard data, I think the team behind Comfort Farms is really onto something.
So why does ag have the magic when it comes to healing the veteran’s mind? Well, the way Jackson describes it, agricultural activities provide a process to help condition former soldiers back to the “new normal” of civilian life and best address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Too often vets are given that diagnosis when in truth all they really need is a new mission. A chance to serve again,” Jackson says.
Connecting veterans to ag, a job with similar themes to the military, is a growing movement.
One thing Jackson highlights throughout the film is the tendency of society to lump veterans and their mental health into the same category. It isn’t uncommon for vets to be misdiagnosed with PTSD when there’s a host of other issues that may be affecting them. Even without a diagnosable condition, it can take a detailed process to go back to being a civilian.
One statistic cited is there are over 10,000 registered nonprofits in the U.S. directed towards veterans. While well-intentioned, the presence of so many such establishments enforce common societal misconceptions having veterans as the recipients of help. This perpetuates the idea of being a uniform group in need of pity and service as opposed to giving them constructive opportunities to heal and serve.
This is part of what makes Comfort Farms unique. Not only is it a type of therapy, it also gives veterans an opportunity to locally produce food that is used for the community. Instead of just receiving help, vets are agents of change and feel a sense of accomplishment.
“Although the farm is named Comfort Farms, it’s not a place of comfort,” Jackson says. “It’s a place that draws you out of your comfort zone, but that’s where the growth is — in discomfort.”
So why farming specifically? This comes down to some of the concepts of war, according to the film. One thing that rubbed me the wrong way was how a focus on local food gave vets the sense of “fighting the big, corporate agricultural model” in a more domestic battle. While there is plenty to scrutinize in our corporate food production systems, I had to cringe just a bit when I heard this.
A more interesting and relevant angle the film explored was the link between developing relationships with animals to be used for food consumption. This small sacrificial parallel seemed to be something many of the veterans in the program strongly related to. And the hands-on approach to their care and harvesting was a sort of therapeutic, philosophical and even spiritual experience.
A big prop I give this film is its unabashed willingness to show the realness of the slaughter process. The filmmakers took almost artistic shots of the blood, death, and processing all the way down to meal prep. They didn’t shy away from the less-aesthetic side of what raising and eating animals really means — I liked that.
There were also some discussions on local and non-traditional foods the film touched on, but I wished they were elaborated further. For example, Comfort Farms uses less conventional protein sources like rabbit, goose, and goat. These are great opportunities to explore diversity and sustainability in our food supply — local and otherwise. And on that local front, the farm and veterans involved do a great job building bonds with their community and having them interact via markets and dining events — again, it’s something I’d love the filmmakers to have explored more.
So, is Comfort Farms worth the watch? This film didn’t go quite as deep or insightful as I’d have preferred, yet there is a lot of value that it brings. Anyone with veterans in their family, particularly those who have found a sense of healing on the home farm or in the industry, will likely find this documentary most compelling. For everyone else, the movie can certainly function as a decent conversation starter especially if you’ve ever wanted to get a different perspective the human, therapeutic side of agriculture. Beyond that, you’ll be doing your own research to go deeper than the anecdotal stories Comfort Farms provides.
The feature-length film is being released on all major video-on-demand platforms on December 8, 2020.
Jaclyn Krymowski is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a major in animal industries and minor in agriculture communications. She is an enthusiastic agvocate, professional freelance writer, and blogs at the-herdbook.com.