"I wanted to create a community for fellow veterans who needed a sense of belonging," says John Mahshie, the founder of Veterans Healing Farm

By Joelle Goldstein and Johnny Dodd
November 05, 2020 11:03 AM
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Credit: Courtesy Veterans Healing Farm

A former senior airman who once struggled with his own mental health is now helping other veterans through a plot of land in North Carolina that he transformed into a "healing farm."

When John Mahshie left the Air Force in 2008, several years after his father's death in a motorcycle accident, he says he felt "alone and isolated," and knew others like him might be feeling the same way.

"I didn't have a way to process my dad's death. I just sucked it up and pressed on," Mahshie, 38, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. "I knew that other veterans felt like I did, in many ways. Maybe they didn't feel exactly how I felt for the same reasons, but they were struggling in their own way."

In 2013, Mahshie transformed a 9-acre plot of land in Hendersonville that his family had used to raise pigs into a lush farmland filled with organic fruit trees, berry bushes and medicinal herbs and flowers.

"I wanted to create a community for fellow veterans who needed a sense of belonging," he explains. "I had this vision of growing a 'healing farm' because it's just as important to feed the body as it is to feed the spirit."

The Veterans Healing Farm team selling produce to raise funds and help feed veterans

The idea for Veterans Healing Farm first came to Mahshie while reflecting on several mission trips he had taken to Mexico with a chaplain from the Air Force. There, the pair worked together to help poor communities in the area.

"I realized that when I was helping other people, I didn't feel as depressed," says Mahshie, who joined the Air Force straight out of high school in 2000. "If you can focus on others, it helps you take your mind off your own pain."

"I thought, if community work helped me before, it would help me now, and would help others," he adds.

Over the next several years, Mahshie gradually developed his concept, in part by enrolling in entrepreneurial boot camps and seeking the advice of lawyers and mentors, before finally launching the farm in 2013.

"I learned pretty much everything about planting and growing by watching YouTube videos," says Mahshie, who, with his wife, Nicole, 34, now invites former service members to volunteer as needed to help keep the farm running.

The vets — who often stay on the property in shipping containers transformed into bunkhouses — "learn new skills but also find purpose in life," says Mahshie.

For more on America's inspiring veterans, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

An aerial image of Veterans Healing Farm

In addition to producing nutritious foods, Mahshie believes that farming provides the vets with numerous therapeutic benefits, such as physical exercise and vitamin D from spending time in the sun.

Equally important, the farm offers a natural environment where former members of the military, some of whom have been struggling with unemployment, depression or homelessness, can gather together amid the woodpeckers and the bees and "continue their military mission of service before self," says Mahshie.

"You don't get that in civilian life," the founder explains. "In civilian life, relationships form and evolve at a different pace. Veterans feel the difference when they get out of the service."

"Here, veterans learn that they can trust other people and that they are valued," he goes on. "The acts of growing and harvesting help them form friendships with people who share the same mission. It's so gratifying to see these relationships form."

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Adds Marine Corps veteran Aaron Wolf, who volunteers on the farm: "When I came home from the service in '08, like so many veterans do, I was dealing with an identity crisis. 'How am I supposed to fit in? Where do I fit in?'"

"Spending time in nature was the one thing that helped me ground myself," recalls Wolf, who now runs Adventures Accessed, a backcountry outfitter and guide service. "My sole purpose is to help people build a meaningful connection in nature."

Over the last six years, Mahshie says the group has given away more than 35,000 lbs. of veteran-grown produce and flowers to other local veterans and their caregivers.

But for him, it's always been about more than simply growing produce.

"What we do is give veterans a new community that they can be a part of with other veterans, caregivers and civilians," says Mahshie. "The need is so significant. We grow plants, but we are growing much more than that. We cultivate life through building community."

  • With reporting by Susan Katz Keating