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Veteran finds life path in farming, advocacy work for other Veterans, farmers

Steve Acheson and his wife, Stephanie Krueger, hosted “Veggies for Vets” concerts on their farm to raise money for free CSA shares for at-risk Veterans. Photo submitted

By Sara Tedeschi

Editor’s Note: This is one of three stories about the recipients of the 2020 Changemaker awards, presented earlier this month at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. This new award recognizes people in the organic farming and food movement who are creatively overcoming systemic challenges to nurture a thriving agricultural future for all. Click here to recommend someone for the 2021 award.

Steve Acheson did not see himself as a changemaker until he realized that the changes throughout his life not only made him who he is today, but also catalyzed his positive impacts and successes. Still a young man, Steve has already navigated a range of personal and professional challenges that have required him to make tough life decisions. Invariably, Steve has chosen life and a commitment to others, to community and to the planet.

Steve grew up on a dairy farm in Cambellsport, Wisconsin. He loved the farm as a child and was active in 4-H. When he was 12, his family left the farm, but the farm never left Steve. After 9/11, like many young men, he enlisted in the Army and deployed to Iraq in 2005. After completing over 400 missions, he was honorably discharged in 2008. Also badly injured and suffering from PTSD, Steve joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (even before leaving active duty service) and dedicated significant time to anti-war activism.

After his military service, Steve graduated from college in engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, but was suffering mentally and felt socially disconnected. At this crucial turning point, Stephanie Krueger, who’s now his wife, got him re-connected to agriculture, farming and importantly, the CSA model of bridging local food production and community. Steve was inspired and immediately began looking for a job on a local organic farm instead of pursuing a career in engineering.

At this juncture, Steve felt that any farm would do, and didn’t care if he was the lowest worker on the totem pole. As fate had it, Steve saw a help-wanted ad from a farm near Middleton, Wisconsin, that happened to be owned by a disabled Veteran. With no personal experience in vegetable farming, Steve found himself hired as a full-time manager of a 70-member CSA. Armed with nothing more than his smartphone and a few basic hand tools, he did the only thing he could think of and called on four or five other local Veterans he had met over the past few years in the anti-war community, all of whom were in pretty similar situations as his own.

At the end of the 2013 season, Steve and Stephanie took over the land lease and formed Peacefully Organic Produce. Keeping Veterans at the forefront of the farm was their number one priority. From that first season’s efforts, Steve was aware of the healing effect for the Veterans who were participating on the farm. The sense of camaraderie, of belonging to the community and to the earth was undeniable. At the end of the day, the team could literally see the fruits of their labor and were beginning to replace the destructive memories of war with productivity and healthy food. They had no tractor, no equipment, no walk-in cooler, no truck, not even crates for the shares, but they had the dream and the desire to farm.

Ron Arm, a Vietnam Veteran who worked every year on Steve’s farm explained that working on the farm “instilled and nurtured our feelings of self-worth and of contributing to society. In part, it was the clear juxtaposition of growing, building, and bettering lives as opposed to the inherent destruction, pain, and negativism of war. In practicality, what Steve did was set out to help both himself and others through farming organically and in a shared way.”

The farm started an annual concert fundraiser called “Veggies for Vets” that took place in their equipment shed, raising money to support over 20 CSA weekly shares offered free to at-risk Veterans in the Madison community and helped to start farmers markets at the Veterans Affairs (VA), University of Wisconsin, and St. Mary’s hospitals in Madison.

The farm was awarded a USDA grant to employ and train Veterans, allowing them to incorporate 15 Veterans into the farm as worker-shares, many of whom remain Steve’s lifelong friends today, through the bonding experience of farming together. With farm infrastructure and local support growing, the farm thrived and things were going well. Steve was living his dream of organic farming, building community and helping Veterans to heal and find purpose.

Then, in the spring of 2016, Steve’s old service-connected spinal injury re-aggravated while he was working on the farm. Suddenly Steve was in excruciating pain, with both legs going numb. Steve was headed for the VA hospital for a third emergency back surgery. Stephanie again stepped in to support the farm through Steve’s absence, organizing a crew of volunteers to help with harvesting, planting, and deliveries while Steve slowly recovered from the operation. A permanent nerve condition ensued, and Steve realized there was no way he’d be able to handle the physical rigors of an organic produce farm. He and Stephanie made the extremely difficult decision to shut down the farm operation.

Steve’s farming heart was broken. “I had been termed 100% disabled,” he said. “This comes with financial support I never anticipated as a farmer. I immediately knew it meant I had to use the opportunity to create good or I’d go crazy.”

Steve faced his own pressing question on how to go about this, when one of his farm supporters asked, “So, Steve, now that you’re not farming 80-plus hours a week anymore, what are you going to do with yourself?”

This takes Steve’s story back to 2008 when he was first discharged from the Army, and the VA had prescribed a host of pharmaceuticals, about 7 pills every day, from muscle relaxers to opiates.

“I was a complete zombie, still dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress, trying to get through my first semester of an engineering degree,” Steve recalled. “I was about to call it quits and throw in the towel when a classmate of mine introduced to me something that would forever change my life–medical cannabis.” Slowly but surely Steve replaced every medication the VA prescribed with one all-natural alternative. He went from almost dropping out of school in February of 2009, to becoming an upper-level math tutor, founding the first student-Veteran organization on campus, working as a student ambassador and in student government, and eventually in 2011 being named the Co-Student of the Year. Stephanie was coincidentally the other Co-Student of the year that same year, which began their journey together.

Steve recalls how cannabis allowed him to be a better student, a better person, and to live his life on his terms, without addiction and the fog of prescription pills. So, when asked at the end of the 2016 season what he would do with himself after closing Peacefully Organic Produce, he answered, “I think I’m going to try to get medical cannabis legalized in our state.”

Steve threw himself into this task, founding Wisconsin Veterans for Compassionate Care, a non-partisan coalition of Veterans from around the state who have all found medical cannabis to be an effective alternative to pills to treat their service-connected injuries.

Veterans for Compassionate Care met with legislators from both sides of the aisle, law enforcement, medical professionals, and hosted a roundtable discussion at the capital where Vice News filmed an episode for national coverage of the medical cannabis movement. In just two short years, Steve went from organic farmer to “Wisconsin’s Number One Medical Cannabis Advocate,” according to High Times magazine.

The organization received so much attention that when Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers announced he would be including funding in his budget to legalize medical cannabis, Steve was invited to the Capitol to give a speech with him. While medical cannabis is still illegal in Wisconsin, Steve is proud and encouraged that the state now has two bills circulating the legislature that have been authored by Republicans, something which Steve thought might be impossible just a few short years ago.

In 2018, when the production of hemp was once again legalized in Wisconsin, Steve teamed up with his dear friend and co-conspirator FL Morris (farmer-owner of Grassroots Farm near Monticello, Wisconsin), Stephanie and other members of Steve’s local Farmer’s Union chapter to organize and protect hemp farmers from the pitfalls of ignorance, greed and regulatory bureaucracy plaguing this new cash crop industry in their state.

“I want to help farmers even if I can’t be a farmer,” Steve said, a clarity that solidified for him during this period of advocacy. The group’s lengthy and circuitous effort finally led to the founding of the South Central Wisconsin Hemp Cooperative, or “South Central Hemp,” in February of 2019, the first certified organic hemp cooperative in the state.

Currently, Steve is still farming on a small scale and continues his advocacy work through the Cooperative, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Veterans for Compassionate Care, the Farmer Veteran Coalition, and many more groups where he seeks to make the positive changes he has seen manifest in his own life. Now a father of two young sons, Steve has all the reason he needs to welcome the next challenge with open arms.

“You learn a lot when you have to start over,” Steve said. “The key is to stay focused on the goals because there is always another way to get there.”

Sara Tedeschi owns Dog Hollow Farm in Ferryville, Wisconsin. She serves on the MOSES Board of Directors.

From the March| April 2020 Issue

 

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