Sap Story: Farming Eases Return Home for Vets

After their careers in the Marine Corps ended with a severe combat injury, Denise and Mark Beyers found a new life on the farm.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Feb 27, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Some farmers use the comparative lull of winter to get organized for the growing season ahead. They make tractor repairs, mend fences, and get the books in order. But for Denise Beyers of Beyers Maple Farm, winter is the busy season.

“The snow begins to melt, the trees begin to thaw, and that’s when the sap begins to flow,” she said. It’s showtime.

Denise and her husband, Mark, both Marine Corps veterans and high school sweethearts, run a small 15-acre farm near Buffalo, New York, with a thriving maple syrup business. They also sell eggs, chickens, and in the summer, if Denise's garden produces more than she can handle, vegetables. Following the trauma of war, their farm has brought the couple close to the healing rhythms of nature.

Denise Beyers. (Photo: Laura Friend Photography)

Women are the fastest growing demographic of both beginning farmers and military veterans—but Denise is one of only 522 women farmers in the Farmer Veteran Coalition. The group serves two pressing needs in our country: To bridge the gap between the number of people exiting the military and the need for more farmers; and to help women farmers thrive in their agricultural careers through a number of resources, including conferences and fellowships.

Women veterans need this kind of career advocacy. A report released in September 2014 by Disabled American Veterans found that female veterans face higher rates of unemployment than their male counterparts and nonveteran women. They also suffer higher rates of homelessness than nonveteran women, and there are fewer resources available for those in need of care for post-traumatic stress disorder. Groups like the Farmer Veteran Coalition argue that careers in agriculture can address many of those issues, as well as provide the structure someone who served in the military might crave and find familiar.

Mark Beyers. (Photo: Laura Friend Photography)

"Farming provides a unique opportunity for soldiers to find peace and quiet, feed their community and their family, while restoring the farming heartland of this country," Michael O'Gorman, the founder and executive director of the Farmers Veteran Coalition, said.

Terra Firma, an award-winning documentary, demonstrated just what the healing powers of farming could look like for women veterans suffering from PTSD after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Agriculture work becomes meditation, therapy. “It was as if the earth had grounded me,” one farmer said.

Early research suggests farming programs can be helpful to veterans over the short term. “There is clear anecdotal evidence from individual veterans and their families of the importance of these programs in helping to cope and recover from the psychological injuries suffered during deployment,” Dr. Daniel Weiss, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told Newsweek. Still, Weiss and others stress that long-term studies are still necessary to draw more concrete conclusions.

Denise and Mark didn’t set out to be farmers, but life kept leading them back that way. In 2005 Mark was deployed to Iraq, while Denise, the only woman in their unit, was held back and placed in the Peacetime Wartime Support Team. “I wanted to go with them, of course I did,” she said. “When I first joined our Marine Unit, India Company, 3/25 [1999], the guys had a bad taste in their mouths from the last female Marine that was in the unit. So I really had a lot of proving to do once I got there,” she said. “Let's just say, I managed to impress the shit out of them.”

Despite her disappointment not serving overseas with her unit, when she looks back now, she can see the blessing that came from being excluded. “If I had gone, I might not have been able to help Mark to recover from his injuries,” she said.

While in Iraq, his unit hit an improvised explosive device, resulting in combat injuries that led to the loss of Mark’s right arm and right leg. Mark returned to the U.S., and more than 40 surgeries followed. Denise served as his caregiver, changing his dressings three times a day. But returning to life in their small one-bedroom apartment in suburban Buffalo was challenging. His wheelchair couldn’t fit through the door of the bathroom; he had to hop to the shower, resulting in several falls. And living on a busy highway called Transit Road was a far cry from either of their rural childhoods.

“That apartment was impossible,” Denise said. They needed to move.

The couple found their farm in East Aurora, New York, and luck struck in the form of a house that was partially handicap accessible. A neighbor offered a few chickens and Denise, who’d raised them as a kid, started selling eggs and poultry. She saw her role as a food producer as a healthy, more natural alternative to big agribusiness and the processed foods available at the grocery store. The signs that the more holistic direction their lives were taking was the right one just kept landing in their laps. One day, sitting in the woods, seedpods from a nearby maple tree helicoptered right onto Mark and made him realize the untapped resource in their woods.

“Nature brings everything right back,” Denise said. “I always had this belief that God put everything on this earth for us.”

The annual tapping ritual, despite the grueling work, has brought the Beyers in line with the slower rhythms of the natural world. “You’re coming off of a long, cold, snowy winter, and you’re getting outside in the sunshine, in the fresh air,” Denise said. “We haven’t been back in our woods in months. I need to invest in a pair of snowshoes, I really do. It’s all about being out in nature.”