From combat to the classroom: Vet seeks to blend passions for military, horticulture to help other vets

Andrea Schubloom
South Dakota State University

BROOKINGS, S.D. —Growing up in rural Wakefield, Neb., Wyatt Brown was surrounded by conventional agriculture. As a teen, he worked several jobs in the industry, including walking and spraying bean fields and working at a local cattle feed yard, large-scale poultry farm and an egg production operation.

In December 2000, Brown enlisted in the Nebraska Army National Guard. Upon graduating from high school, he attended basic training in Fort Sill, Okla., and was just three weeks into his training when 9/11 occurred. After four years of enlisted service, he transferred from Wayne State College in Nebraska and enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of South Dakota, where he studied military science and recreation management. He later commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, graduated from USD in 2006 and returned to Fort Sill to attend the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course.

Brown went on to serve as a fire support officer with the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Ky., and as a platoon leader with the 1-320th Field Artillery Regiment. He was then deployed to Al Haswah and Baghdad City in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, and upon his return, completed the Field Artillery Captain’s Career Course and immediately reported to the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colo. Brown was then deployed two more times, serving his second deployment in southern Iraq from 2010 to 2011, and his third and final deployment in Shah Joy, Afghanistan, in 2012.

“After serving three deployments and seven years of active duty military service, I made the difficult decision to leave the military,” said Brown. “The Army was my life and I loved it. However, I didn’t want my children growing up without a father or my wife without her husband.”

Once Brown was out of the military, he struggled to decide how and where to begin his career.

“It was clear to me that I would probably never find a career as fulfilling as the military,” said Brown. “Then one day while I was searching for other options, I found a program online called Veterans to Farmers.”

Veterans to Farmers

Veterans to Farmers (VTF) is a non-profit organization based in Denver that helps assist veterans to assimilate effectively, productively and permanently into private citizenry through agricultural training and education. Class participants work alongside other veterans, learning new skills and experiencing the grounding effects of the farm through training in agricultural systems, technologies and business operations for a fulfilling and sustainable lifestyle.

“The whole premise of the program is to give veterans a purpose,” said Brown. “Farming is mentally, physically and spiritually challenging and there are few occupations out there better suited to fill that role in farming than a combat veteran.”

Brown was intrigued by the program and decided to join. While there, he learned about the many facets of growing vegetable crops through organic farming, hydroponics and aquaponics in addition to bee keeping, canning, composting and basic botany and horticultural skills.

“I received a basic understanding of horticulture through VTF, but it was obvious to me that I needed to refine my skills even more if I wanted to teach the skills I learned to others,” said Brown. “I knew I wanted to bring a program like this to South Dakota, but I still had a knowledge gap in plant science that I wanted to fill, and I wasn’t ready to be farming on my own yet.”

A new chapter

After completing the VTF program in 2016, Brown made the decision to return to college in fall 2017 and pursue an undergraduate degree in horticulture at South Dakota State University to further his knowledge. He recently filled his prior knowledge gap and graduated in December 2019.

During summer 2019, Brown completed a horticulture internship with SDSU Extension that allowed him to refine his teaching and plant knowledge skills even further. He published articles for the iGrow Gardens Column, writing about many aspects of organic growing for both vegetable crops and lawn and landscape plants. He also presented to Master Gardener programs, provided composting training to different clubs and community groups and answered consumers’ horticulture questions from across the state.

Throughout his time at SDSU, Brown worked at the SDSU Local Foods Education Center on campus and McCrory Gardens, where he managed the sustainable vegetable garden for two summers.

“The ‘Veggie Garden’ grew and produced really well while I was there,” said Brown. “It certainly helped me practice many of the technical skills I learned at VTF and my own self-taught instruction.”

He also served as the president of Pi Alpha Xi Horticultural Honor Society and was a member of the Sigma Lambda Sigma Chapter of the SDSU Mortar Board Honor Society.

“My experience at SDSU was absolutely outstanding,” said Brown. “I was able to receive a topnotch education from some of the best faculty in the Midwest. I was not only enamored by some of the basic plant science and soil classes, but I really enjoyed learning basic chemistry, organic chemistry and physics as well.”

The goal

While working toward his degree, Brown made a very specific goal to start a program similar to VTF in South Dakota after he graduated. He, along with a small group of veterans, have started a nonprofit organization called ReFocus. The group is working to establish an exclusive farming program in South Dakota to teach veterans in the Midwest many of the same disciplines that VTF does in Denver. ReFocus is currently working with local community and university partners to refine their ideas and garner support for the program.

“There are a lot of programs for veterans to take part in across the United States, but none are all encompassing, especially here in South Dakota,” said Brown. “There is an ancient proverb that states ‘If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day; if you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.’ That would be the goal for this program — teach veterans how to feed themselves, with the ultimate goal of producing enough food to feed an entire community.”

Brown currently resides in Brookings with his wife, Sara, and their three children Elijah, Emily and Gabriel. After graduating in December, he began planning for ReFocus and recently started graduate school at SDSU to pursue a master’s degree in plant science. Brown continues to serve his community and his country as an active volunteer with local nonprofit organizations and as a field grade officer in the Army Reserves in Sioux Falls, S.D.

As a highly decorated veteran, Brown’s awards and recognitions include the Bronze Star Medal with two oak leaf clusters, a Purple Heart, a Meritorious Service Medal, an Army Commendation Medal, an Army Reserve Component Achievement Medal with two oak leaf clusters, a National Defense Service Medal, a NATO Medal, an Army Service Ribbon, an Overseas Service Ribbon 2nd award, a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, an Afghanistan Campaign Medal, an Iraq Campaign Medal, a Joint Meritorious Unit Award, a Meritorious Unit Citation, a Combat Action Badge and an Air Assault Badge.

“There are many people in the United States to thank for the prosperity that we have in our country, but two of the most important are the farmer and the American soldier,” said Brown. “I can think of no better way to honor these two professions than to unify these efforts together with veteran farmers helping to feed our communities. It’s a beautiful dream!”

CPT Wyatt Brown, center, assesses an Afghan National Police checkpoint near Shah Joy, Afghanistan.
CPT Wyatt Brown before a patrol.