Jerry Ireland and his wife, Emily, scan a new field at their 80-acre Swanville farm, as their 3-year-old daughter, Aana, toddles around the stubble and stumps that need to be cleared to allow pigs and cattle to graze.
The former Army sergeant points to a rise where the first of six small cottages is slated to be built for struggling veterans who are trying to "start over" and may see a future in agriculture.
The project is part of Twenty-Two, a new United Farmer Veterans of Maine (ufvme.org) program named for the 22 U.S. veteran suicides that occur each day, on average. The project aims to build 300-plus cottages on veteran-owned farms across Maine – there are hundreds and many of the farmers are active with the group. On weekends this fall, members prepared cabin sites and raised funds for the program at a corn maze and pig roast.
SERVED 1995-2006 in the U.S. Army; achieved the rank of sergeant.
BASED at Truax Field Air National Guard Base (Wisconsin Army National Guard), Madison, Wis.; Pentagon Army Operations Center), Arlington, Va.
RECEIVED Commendation Medal, Achievement Medal.
Farming gave Ireland a second chance at life, and he hopes Twenty-Two will do so for other veterans, providing transitional living that may inspire them to work on a farm or pursue farming themselves.
After numerous missions in support of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Ireland received a medical discharge in 2006 but continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress. Abusing alcohol and drugs cost him his home, job and first wife, with whom he has two sons, Tyler, 16, and Aiden, 12, of Wisconsin.
It's been a busy year for United Farmer Veterans – and for Ireland, 40, who logs long hours as its unpaid executive director, on top of farm duty. The organization started last year as a chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition but recently re-formed as an independent nonprofit with a new moniker. The all-volunteer organization felt the California-based coalition was spending too much on administration and didn't "get" farming in Maine, where small family farms are the norm and a strong local foods movement has brought many young farmers into the fold.
Started in 2012 on land from Emily's parents, Ireland Hill Farms produces vegetables, fruit, eggs, maple syrup, honey and feed, and raises grass-fed cattle and grain-free pigs. There are hoop houses and an eye-catching farm store where products have "Homegrown By Heroes" and "Get Real! Get Maine!" labels.
United Farmer Veterans promotes the government-sponsored branding programs to members; has a farm equipment sharing/repurposing program; provides mentorship and networking; helps members navigate agricultural, veteran and business education and financing programs; and strives to make fresh food more affordable for working folk.
"Our ultimate goal," said Ireland, whose farm offers pick-your-own produce for visitors, "is to build a better community."
In 1994, he moved from Lincoln to Wisconsin to attend college but left to join the Wisconsin Army National Guard, later transferring to the regular Army. A piece of limestone debris from the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon sits on a side table in Ireland's living room: He stood honor guard atop the edifice on the first anniversary of the attack.
Based at the Pentagon, he received a Commendation Medal for developing a state-of-the-art classified records-keeping system post-9/11. Ireland also has an Achievement Medal.
At times Emily tears up when her husband tells veterans something she's heard "a million times … to hear him and how passionate he is for his fellow veterans … it's a blessing to be around it."