Soil Magic: Reflections From a Veteran Farm Fellow

By Vanessa Hale, USAF, ret.  

The first time I cooked food I had helped grow at Arcadia, I started to cry.  Maybe,  just maybe,  it was the white spear scallions that helped the tear ducts awaken, but shortly thereafter I was full on weeping.  I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why.  Was it the wonder I felt following the miracle from gently pressing the tiny seed into the flat to pulling it from the soil?  Or was it the sense of accomplishment after months of aching, callousing, sweaty work resulting in this delicious meal?  Or even shadowed realizations that my Dad’s pancreatic cancer resulted from his type II diabetes, which resulted from his lack of fresh healthy food?   Regardless, eating vegetables I helped to grow has been a very emotional experience for me, one that results in improved health for both body AND mind, each and every time.

As our Fellowship year draws to a close, I have been doing alot of reflecting.  Trellising 300 feet of tomatoes provides ample opportunity!  One thing I have noticed is just how well I’m navigating this pandemic.  While the world is in turmoil, and many friends and some of my own family members are struggling,  I have thrived.  I’ve maintained a consistent schedule and eaten well.  The physical activity has been intense, leading me to restful sleep.   I’m learning new things through purposeful work.  I get to socialize with other farmers, discuss ideas (albeit 6 feet away and masked), and spend lots of screen-free time outside in the sunshine.  

But it started off rocky; let me explain.  This Fellowship was my first time working outside the home, since my youngest was born 13 years ago.  Shortly after the commencement of the Fellowship, quarantine started, my children struggled with the transition to screen school, COVID was having a field day with my anxiety, and an aunt, uncle, and cousin died suddenly within three weeks of each other.  My heart was breaking and zeal withering.  To be honest, I had several conversations with my spouse that maybe this was not the best time to return to work.   I started to think about how I could effectively manage this transition.

In my former life as a military social worker, much of my time was focused on helping troops and their families find accessible and effective ways of relieving psychological pain.   While some therapeutic interventions were complex and analytical, and some were focused on skill building; many were simple and straightforward.  We would address essentials such as improving sleep quality, improving nutrition, increasing or shifting  types of physical activity, finding fun and socialization.  We also worked on discovering or reconnecting with hobbies and activities,  establishing consistency in a daily routine,  capturing opportunities to foster deeper connection, whether in a religious setting or outside experiencing nature, and learning new things and giving back to the community -- helpful activities reduce stress.

I realized all the essential elements I worked to help my clients recapture were, for me, all wrapped in one package: a Veteran Farm Fellowship at Arcadia. I flourished due to the physical labor, the human connection, the fresh food, purposeful work and the sunshine… coupled with incredibly supportive and flexible colleagues, and furthered by a little soil magic.  

You may be aware of soil magic. If not, it's a soil microbe called Mycobacterium Vaccae.  These microbes, which can only be found in soil, enter our bodies through inhalation, skin absorption, and directly into our bloodstreams through cuts/scrapes -- especially during farming and gardening. Neuroscientists are studying the effects of this bacteria on serotonin stimulation. Serotonin is the chemical in our brains linked to relaxation, stress reduction, and a brighter mood.  Research studies demonstrated that cancer patients, when exposed to this microbe, showed improved mood. Animal studies showed increased concentration and improved cognitive function.   

So I encourage you to get outside and get your hands soiled.  I hope you take the opportunity to grow your own food, tend a flower garden, or volunteer at Arcadia when public health guidance allows, so you too can experience the soil magic!


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