Operation Harvest and Heal: one farm’s mission to nurture veterans, families, and local food

By Lily Sexton – April 14, 2015

In the Pioneer Valley, one can hardly travel a few miles without a farm sighting. Large dairy farms, small-scale organic production, lush displays of permaculture; this area grows amazing food. But though it may seem that the Valley has enough farmers as it is, Marcin Butkiewicz is settling farm land in an entirely unique way. Butkiewicz currently is working in Rwanda as a data systems analyst for Gardens For Health, a non-profit that partners with local health centers to aid malnourished children by teaching agricultural skills and nutritional knowledge to mothers and providing them with resources to improve their home gardens. It is easy to see his passion for food, farming, and the healing impact they can have on people.

On a sunny afternoon at the Montague Book Mill, Marcin and I met for a cup of coffee to talk about his project, Operation Harvest and Heal. Equal parts fully sustainable farm, non-profit CSA system, and therapeutic haven for returning veterans, it is easy to tell that the vision of Operation Harvest and Heal is the work of a man gifted with the ability to understand the ripple effects that positive change can have on a whole system. Perhaps this is because Butkiewicz has also seen the antithesis of this; the negative spiral of veterans returning from war. “[About] 75% of the homeless population in Boston is veterans. [A recent study] stated that 1.4 million veterans need to rely on food stamps to feed their children, which is ridiculous.” Marcin’s status as a veteran gives him unique insight into the struggles that men and women face upon returning from active duty, specifically the immense challenge of obtaining whole, healthy food when money is tight. “In Cambridge, [a CSA share] is anywhere from $700-1,000… This past summer I spoke at an event raising money for veterans to buy CSA shares. We started having conversations while we were raising that money for the CSAs [about the absurdity] of paying for commercial products when the structure behind them isn’t viable.” Conversations like these led Butkiewicz to create the Harvest portion of the Operation.

Harvest and Heal really go hand in hand for Butkiweicz, who found mental and emotional recovery in farming. “When I first got back I had a lot of trouble transitioning, like most veterans do, which is why most of them are not successful. The thing that helped me the most was gardening. I went out and just started growing and it was actually the most therapeutic thing that I’ve ever done… Emotionally, I was on a cocktail of medicines to ease anxiety when I first got back… Having something that I produced … that was self-sustaining and that I could take pride in, that I’d created- [and] it could sustain me too, if I wanted it to. It was an incredible revelation that woke me up in a sense.” Operation Harvest and Heal’s model will allow veterans and their families to take their recovery into their own hands, literally. Under Marcin’s leadership, veterans will be able to participate in the cultivation of a full array of vegetables and grains and many other tasks involved with growing food and materials to live off of. Says Butkiewicz, “Not only will they learn the skills, but they’ll have a trade, it’ll be official, they can get a job, they can get some therapy, they can grow their own food for their own family. [Then it can become] a group of people who are doing the work, so the size of the farm can grow more. I don’t care if I make a dime off of it. The idea also is to grow the local infrastructure and the local resources.”

Butkiewicz’s unique ability to communicate how his vision will benefit the local community is what makes local non-profits ultimately succeed. He seems to always be thinking four steps ahead, taking into consideration the community’s needs and wants and where it can improve. “A lot of people are disconnected from local food. There’s a lot of people who will go to the store, they’ll buy something, and that’s how they get all their food. Whereas up until the first markets in the fifties, up until then everything was local. So by growing awareness, by growing an identity with your local food sources, that becomes the meaning. [But] a lot of people can’t afford it; it’s only the upper echelons of society, unfortunately, that can afford resources like that… It’s kind of counterintuitive.”

By being an active presence in the local community, Marcin hopes to begin to bring healthy food to all by spreading awareness and education. “The idea behind [the local food movement] is good but with limited resources it creates more of a differentiation. If you create awareness, if you create appreciation through free education amongst the people who aren’t part of the [upper echelons of society], then it becomes part of their lives. They want to be local, they want to be able to grow local food.” Butkiewicz sees a major flaw in America’s reliance on supermarkets. Being able to buy many varieties of produce from all over the world has its perks, but ultimately this food has to travel very far to be offered. People do not have the opportunity to see the impact of their food, the farmer who grows it, the methods used; “There’s not a lot of identity with that.”

Operation Harvest and Heal is planning on having seeds in the ground by the spring of 2016. After the initial start-up costs, the farm should be able to sustain itself at little to no costs through seed-saving and sustainable practices, reasons Butkiewicz. The vision includes draft horse power down the road in order to maintain the farm’s non-mechanized policy.

As the Pioneer Valley continues to lead the region and the state in the local food movement, Operation Harvest and Heal, with its all-inclusive vision, will be a reminder of the core value that inspired the movement: local, healthy food is for everyone. It will aid veterans in discovering new skills in a healing environment and those who previously could not afford or have access to organic produce will be given that chance. Hopefully, one farm can begin to shift the negative spiral that too many veterans are faced with upon returning from duty.

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You can contact Marcin at krasnoludek090@gmail.com.

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