Bill O’Brien sees opportunity in veterans-turned-farmers network

 In September 2018

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With his 30-acre Pender County farm as the base, Bill O’Brien, right, formed a nonprofit to teach veterans how to make money in agriculture. He’s attracted support from business leaders including Tom Woods, president of food distributor Sysco Corp.’s Raleigh division.

By Kevin Maurer

It started with ducks. Bill O’Brien’s wife, Heather, a veterinarian in Jacksonville, brought some ducklings home after a family gave them up upon realizing the birds don’t stay cute. Taking care of the ducks on his Pender County farm led to chickens. Pretty soon, he had more eggs than he could eat.

“It’s called chicken math,” he says. “You get two birds, you end up with four. You get four birds, you end up with 12.”

O’Brien, a veteran who served in the Navy and Army National Guard and in law enforcement, started selling the eggs at local farmers markets, hoping to make some gas money. To his surprise, he found other veterans doing the same thing. O’Brien saw opportunity in the veteran-turned-farmer network, so he created Veteran Owned Veteran Grown Inc.

Veterans share similar qualities: They’re driven and motivated to succeed. But the stresses of 17 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a toll, making the transition to civilian life difficult for some. About 20 U.S. veterans took their lives every day in 2014, according to a recent report by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. Many others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and various mental-health issues.

“Think about it — while on active duty, we were unstoppable warriors,” O’Brien wrote on the group’s website. “There is no reason why we can’t still be just as unstoppable.”

O’Brien is working with 15 veterans turned farmers. “The goal is to get guys off the couch,” he says. “Get them working. Building in some self-worth.” His long-term plan is to buy more land and provide housing and agricultural training programs.

One new farmer is James Rytych, a veteran Marine Corps combat engineer who lives in Jacksonville. He was injured in Iraq and medically retired after serving 12 years. When he left the Marine Corps, he suffered from seizures and PTSD. He and his wife, Amanda, wanted to raise chickens, so they drove out to look at O’Brien’s 30-acre farm.

After a few visits, Rytych started to tend the chickens and then the pigs. Soon, things started to open up for him. The farm tapped into some of the reasons he joined the military: being outside, getting dirty, focusing on a mission. “It makes me feel like I accomplished something,” Rytych says.

There was something to watching chickens peck food off the ground or watching pigs play in the mud, says Amanda Rytych, who is on the group’s board.

Before Rytych went out to the farm, he was struggling with his injuries. “I was really bad,” he says. “A lot of anger. Lack of patience. I’d go off on anything.”

But since he started working at the farm, he has improved so much that his daughter hugged O’Brien after one visit. “Thank you so much for letting my daddy come out here,” she told him. “He is a much nicer person.”

Working is the best treatment for troubled veterans, better than relying on psychotropic drugs, O’Brien says.

“It’s therapy through sweating it out,” he says. “It is better than any pill the VA is going to give you.”

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Todd Olson