OVAPA, WV — “Agriculture saved my life!” exclaims Eric Grandon, a retired staff sergeant who struggles with Gulf War Syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Three years ago, Grandon bought his father’s farm for a buck and put in his first crop of sorghum to make molasses. It failed miserably.
But the next year, with some mentoring by James McCormick, director of the state’s Veterans to Agriculture program, the sorghum crop came in nicely. So Grandon and his wife Mary named their farm the Sugar Bottom Farm.
Only about four of the 93 acres have been cultivated, but the production is amazing. Two acres of sorghum stood about seven feet tall last week, although a vicious storm blew down about three quarters of it the evening after my visit, costing the Grandons between $5,000 and $7,000.
In the garden, Grandon has added about 500 lunchbox pepper plants and another 250 grape tomato plants, so that he can sell fresh produce to the Clay County schools to supplement student lunches.
“We were very successful because everyone loved our home-grown vegetables,” he said. “We couldn’t grow enough to meet the demand.”
Next to the garden is a humming beehive. Bees pollenate his cane, but also provide honey. Grandon has 10 more beehives sitting in his garage awaiting delivery of new bee colonies, which will be a major focus early next summer.
Fifteen hens were busily laying eggs in their henhouse during my visit, and the Grandons are incubating a new batch of chicks in an upstairs bathroom. As we sat talking in their living room, Mary heard a flurry of excited peeps and ran upstairs to prevent a mass breakout by the chicks.
Raspberries, blueberries, watermelons and strawberries take up a portion of their hillside, and Grandon plans to expand that dramatically next summer. He’s also planning to turn a big portion of their yard into an orchard.
“Peaches, pears and apples,” murmured Mary happily.
Mary has her own greenhouse, in which she starts all her vegetables from seed. And the Natural Resources Conservation Service has just provided the Grandons with a big seasonal tunnel. Essentially it’s a huge plastic greenhouse, 30 feet wide by 72 feet long. Best of all, it was free.
“That will extend my growing season from February until December,” said Grandon.
Currently, Grandon farms for five days, then spends a day each selling his produce at two area farmers’ markets. But by extending his growing season, he can take better advantage of area farm-to-school programs, which provide a more predictable income.
“The goal is to set up Sugar Bottom Farm as a satellite farm for training vets in agriculture,” Grandon said.
Frankly, what the Grandons have accomplished in just two years is nothing short of amazing.
“Agri-therapy has been hugely helpful for Eric,” said his wife, adding that he needed it badly.
During a 20-year career in the Army, Grandon served six tours of duty in the Middle East. “But the strange behavior problems started right after (the terrorist attacks on) 9-11,” Mary said. He told me that he would end up going back, and that started a downhill spiral. He just sat on the couch and waited for the call, and it came in 2003. In 2005 when he came back, I told him it was time to seek some help.”
Grandon’s last deployment was back to Iraq again, but he was severely depressed and kept leading his unit into unnecessary firefights. Finally, he was reassigned to work with the CIA interrogating suspected members of the Republican Guard, the elite military forces reporting directly to Saddam Hussein, at prisoner-of-war camps similar to Abu Grhaib.
He has never talked about what he did during those interrogations, he said, because a two-star general threatened him with severe reprisals if he ever said anything.
“So when I cracked, I cracked wide open,” he said.
Focus was a major problem. “I was just spinning around and getting nowhere,” said Grandon, adding that their young daughter had to stay with her grandparents when her mother wasn’t around to take care of her. He also lost several cars, and his wife wouldn’t let him go anywhere alone.
Then in 2011, he had some surgery done, and a botched catheterization created excruciating pain. That triggered a three-week flashback in which he tried to write on hospital room walls, convinced he was recording mission assignments on a mission board in a military headquarters.
Ultimately, he says he was rated at 160 percent disabled – 60 percent for Gulf War Syndrome and 100 percent for PTSD.
“James (McCormick) introduced me to farming,” said Grandon. “We talked for four straight hours the first time we talked because we had a lot in common: We were both dealing with PTSD. He saw I needed something because I was just spinning around and going nowhere. James put me on task. It brought me into focus for the first time in years.”
Mary said she saw the change after he came back from a veterans’ conference on small farms in Arkansas. “He came back with a spark,” she said. “He said ‘This is what I want to do,’ and I said ‘Go for it.’ For Eric, it was a way to structure himself, and it was also a way to give something back.”
Counseling taught him some lessons. “The first step to recovery – and the most important one – is to forgive yourself for everything you did,” said Grandon.
But farming took that to a whole new level. “When you’ve got all that guilt and anger, three weeks on a rototiller will take a big chunk of that away,” he chuckled.
And he continues to be active in the West Virginia Vets to Agriculture program because it gives him a chance to help other vets. “We’re all about teaching someone who has no farming skills to become a successful farmer,” said Grandon. “Because as I’ve demonstrated, agriculture is tremendously therapeutic.”