A well-known passage from the Book of Isaiah describes making the transition from war to peace. It could be the story of Jon Jackson.
Jackson was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, a busy industrial town just across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan. On September 11, 2001, he’d watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center burn and then implode. The attacks that day inspired him to enlist in the U.S. Army and serve as an Airborne Ranger in the 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite special operations unit.
In 2015, following two combat tours in Iraq and four in Afghanistan, Jackson was released from service due to combat injuries. Back in the U.S., he found himself rudderless. Depressed. At one point, he’d come within a few moments of taking his own life.
Farming Rescued this City Boy
“For some reason, farming was a calling to me,” Jackson recalled. “My dad and his family are from LaGrange, Georgia, and listening to his stories of farming and hunting planted a seed.”
That seed grew into an idea that would help him and other U.S. military veterans recover from the trauma of combat.
Jackson started a farm where injured vets could come to do hard work — farming is inescapably hard work — and through that hard work to regain a sense of purpose and accomplishment and self-worth.
He acquired 20 acres of land in Milledgeville, a town of 19,000 in central Georgia, and created STAG VETS, INC. (STAG stands for Strength To Achieve Greatness.) Jackson named the plot Comfort Farms, the nation’s first Acute Veterans Crisis Agriculture center. Its motto is “Transforming Lives One Seed at a Time.”
The name Comfort Farms suggests a place that provides refuge to U.S. military veterans, and it certainly does that, but it’s actually Jackson’s way of honoring fellow Army Ranger and close friend Captain Kyle A. Comfort, who was killed in action in 2010.
Early on, Jackson found that farming and military training have a lot in common.
“Farming is a production-driven environment,” he said. “You see the results of your hard work. The farm engages your senses and makes you feel alive again. It challenges you to succeed every day.”
Sharing the Challenge and the Feeling of Success
“We often get a call that a veteran is having a really hard time and spiraling down,” he said. “First, we work with the family to get that veteran into long-term treatment. Once the vet commits to long-term treatment, we have him or her come down to the farm for a week or two.” More than 80 veterans have already gone through the program.
While there, veterans have their costs covered entirely by Comfort Farms — the program receives no local, state, or federal funds — so Jackson plows 100 percent of all sales of the farm’s pork, beef, rabbit, lamb, goat, and vegetables right back into the program.
He has set-up the farm to accommodate a couple veterans or one veteran and his family at a time. And even though very few Americans — just 1%–2% of the population, according to estimates — have ever worked on a farm, Jackson doesn’t worry about inexperience.
“The farm is like war — you arrive, and they throw you in,” Jackson said. “I literally have veterans in crisis showing up to the farm with tears in their eyes because they don’t know what to do. I just look at them and tell them, ‘I understand what you’re going through, bud, but we have pigs to catch up, fields to water, and chickens to feed. Let’s move out!’ They instantly switch from ‘vulnerable mode’ to ‘go mode.’”
Veterans are perfect for any task because they take direction well and they execute, Jackson explained. He set up the farm in a way that allows most disabled veterans to be productive. “Vets in wheel chairs and vets with prosthetic legs come to work at the farm,” he said. “They come disabled and they leave feeling enabled. That’s the beauty of Comfort Farms.”
Another of the beauties of Comfort Farms is its unusual selection of crops.
Jackson understood that he wouldn’t be able to compete with larger farms on crops such as corn and soybeans. He also shrewdly anticipated the farm-to-table movement.
“We focus on crops that can’t be bought at your local supermarket,” Jackson said. “People want to be more connected with their food, to learn the story and lineage of their food. So we grow foods that have both historical relevance in our region and complement unusual dishes.”
Jackson said the farm’s biggest sellers are Japanese sweet potatoes, Shishito grilling peppers, and heirloom yellow flesh watermelon.
He also grows sweet cherry and grape heirloom tomatoes and heritage collard greens. In addition, he raises bee-friendly plants to help encourage the production of honey, another of the farm’s offerings.
The exotic, and possibly eccentric, roster of crops has attracted the attention of not just local foodies, but also professional chefs. Jackson said people have come to shop at the farm’s on-site farmers market from all over Georgia as well as North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi and from as far away as Chicago. A result is that the Comfort Farms brand has come to stand for excellence and has earned its way into households across the country, a distinction that makes Jackson proud.
Jackson is also proud to use a John Deere tractor at Comfort Farms. However, he was under the impression his particular model of compact utility tractor was made in China.
“It wasn’t until a representative invited me to go on a tour of a John Deere plant in Georgia that I learned the truth,” Jackson said. “I was shocked. A plant in Georgia! When I visited the plant, the first thing I noticed was the number of veterans who worked there. Some have been working there for 20 years! It made me feel so proud to see this American company doing great things right in my backyard.”
But Jackson’s pride in a tractor made in America with the help of military veterans also has a practical side.
“The icing on the cake was the quick hitch release,” he said. “I work with a lot of disabled vets who want to farm, but they’re limited in their abilities to move big equipment. The 3032E compact utility tractor’s quick hitch saves me about 45 minutes. The vets absolutely love the ease of use.”
The tractor sees all kinds of action, including running feed to the hogs and clearing trails on 300 acres of leased land that Comfort Farms invites veterans, their families, and local community members to use for hunting, exploration, and other recreation.
Jackson also uses a Deere riding mower that keeps the lawns in pristine condition for visitors. “We were paying about $300 a month for mowing,” Jackson said, “but we’re a non-profit, so we don’t have a lot of money. By using the Deere lawnmower, we’ve been able to save so much money.”
A four-seat Deere utility vehicle with a dump trailer is on Jackson’s wish list. “We want one so vets with mobility issues can shuttle livestock feed from one end of the property to the other,” he said. “We could also use it to drop off veterans at deer stands and shuttle guests from our back parking area when we host our popular farm-to-table dinners.”
Word is Spreading
Jackson’s story is starting to attract national interest. His TEDX talk has attracted nearly 2,000 views. He’s been featured on Public Radio International. And in 2017 the Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” visited Comfort Farms to shoot a segment.
“We have a huge social media platform,” Jackson said. “I receive emails and calls every day. Vietnam veterans reach out and tell us they wish they had had this type of thing when they came back from the war. It gives me watery eyes to see that we are giving folks hope, especially those who need it the most.”
Jackson anticipates his program will grow and spread out, and he isn’t thinking small.
“Our plans are to turn our Milledgeville site into an Agricultural Culinary Academy,” Jackson said. If he succeeds, he’ll be providing timely and relevant training for job placement into Georgia’s exceptional culinary industry and into Georgia agriculture, which is the state’s number one industry.
“We’ll use Comfort Farms as the center of operations for the state,” he said. From there, he plans to fan out, creating a network of co‑operative farms that would put help within one hour of veterans anywhere in the state.
Jackson is also inspiring other farmers. He’s earned three grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in just the past two years taught approximately 300 veterans and other new farmers from around the country how to create high yields on small acreage.
Jackson said culinary professionals from across the state are interested in hiring veterans and community members trained by Comfort Farms, and adding a small restaurant at Comfort Farms is also on his crowded to-do list.
“Our mission is to help veterans do something great again,” he said. “Veterans need a purpose. They need to give back. We want our veterans to be leaders in the community, to get involved in the local and sustainable food movement, and to mentor young kids.”
Jackson has taken a formidable sword and is beating it into an even more formidable plowshare.