Steve Smith tending to his yard of garlic
Story by Frank Johnson
Photography by Denise Johnson
Iraq War veterans Steve Smith and James Jeffers make stops around Dallas in a long, black pickup: Oak Cliff to Old Lake Highlands, then Uptown, Junius Heights, Preston Hollow and, finally, West Dallas. Parked in a private garden off Commerce Street, the tailgate drops to reveal nearly 20 white buckets of compost fodder—corn husks and apple cores, ground coffee and spent eggshells. All is soon interred within orderly windrows.
Since 2012, Smith and Jeffers have invested themselves in urban farming. They collect and compost select organic waste from local restaurants and grocers, then work the resultant nutrient-rich soil to grow, harvest and sell organic produce. They farm wherever permitted: community gardens, rooftops and residential yards, including their own. Eat the Yard, as they call their operation, is a considerably greener, healthier, locally supportive alternative to the interstate and international produce trade.
But far from being another eco-friendly venture, their endgame entails offering other military veterans the opportunity to find meaningfulness and mindfulness by getting their hands dirty. If Jeffers and Smith can crack the business of urban farming, they intend to cultivate a traditional farm, guiding and growing alongside wounded warriors. And if the duo can solve the issue of recruiting and employing veterans, we may just have a few more vets around.
In the eight hours it takes Smith and Jeffers to collect and deposit the day’s discards, seven American veterans will commit suicide, according to a 2010 VA study, the most comprehensive of its kind. For a moment, forget veterans’ heightened susceptibility to divorce, unemployment, substance abuse and homelessness. A veteran suicide occurs every 65 minutes, 22 per day, perhaps more. It’s a staggering estimation that Smith and Jeffers hope to stanch.
Jeffers, who was medically retired from the Army in 2009, speculates that farming saved his life. “If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be divorced, living in a dump,” he says. “I’d probably be drinking myself to death.”
James Jeffers arrives to collect organic waste at Norma’s Café
In the eight hours it takes Smith and Jeffers
to collect and deposit the day’s discards,
seven American veterans will commit
suicide, according to a 2010 VA study, the
most comprehensive of its kind.
Through farming, Smith stresses that veterans “get all this great therapy, learn about food and composting. And if they get excited enough about it, maybe they’ll become farmers themselves.”
But farming isn’t simply prospective therapy for the one in five veterans said to have PTSD. With an aging population of American farmers and 2.6 million Iraq and Afghanistan War vets, getting hands in the dirt could also be an act of national security, an honorable mission for discharged soldiers like Smith and Jeffers.
In 2000, they were short-haired Army grunts at Fort Hood. They were in their 20s, surrounded by teenaged recruits and considered “the old guys.” The old guys clicked. Both grew up as Yankees in extensive military families—families with gardens. Neither had left home bent on soldiering, but there they were: taking orders, exploding small portions of Texas and looking after one another on leave when things got rowdy. Both men say they were born problem solvers, which helped them rank up to non-commissioned officers.
But after Fort Hood they lost touch. Smith says, “It’s not like we had Facebook back then.”
In 2002, Smith left the Army but was recalled in 2005 and deployed to Camp Buehring, Kuwait as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His unit patrolled the Kuwait-Iraq border and responded to vehicular accidents, but he never saw combat. Even then, he didn’t come home unscathed.
Smith says he was riding shotgun in an old Humvee when it veered off-road to pass a sluggish sewage truck. The Humvee, top-heavy with aftermarket armor, then hit several unseen wadis and began rolling over. Smith says this was punctuated by “the guy in the back yelling, ‘Rollover! Rollover! Rollover!’”
Having survived gnarly urban combat,
Jeffers says a surprising benefit to agriculture was
its therapeutic value, which continues to this day.
“I’ll sit there for hours and pick weeds.
Everything in the backdrop just goes away.”
When the vehicle flipped, a 35-pound can of .50-cal ammo flew from its rigging, smacking Smith’s head. He later suffered headaches, memory issues and sleeplessness. It wasn’t until he reentered civilian life that the VA summoned him, ran tests and diagnosed him with a mild traumatic brain injury.
After the accident, Smith was working out at a gym in Kuwait where he bumped into Jeffers. It was a happy reunion. They hadn’t seen each other in nearly three years and agreed to keep in touch. Jeffers, who’d spent years training for surgical urban combat, was bound for his second tour in Baghdad.
Jeffers says questionable tactical changes led to a nightmarish second deployment as the U.S. Army pushed further North. And one evening near Haifa Street, an informant reported insurgent activity nearby. Jeffers says, “We went back in an area we were just in, which you never do. You never go back. Especially in that area. Zone Five was the worst. And it’s tight in there. It’s bad-tight.”
When the ambush sparked off, Jeffers says he was on point in an alley behind a high-rise apartment building. Three grenades came pouring down. “I had one airburst in my face and two blow up right at my feet,” he says. Shrapnel shot into his forearms, sliced his nostril in half and peppered his legs, which still sometimes eject “brokenoff- pencil-lead-sized” bits of shrapnel.
This incident, coupled with traumatic brain injuries sustained from other combat encounters, led Jeffers to reluctantly accept medical retirement despite aspiring to Special Forces status.
After Iraq, Jeffers and Smith bought homes in Oak Cliff. In time they were both married, both fathers. Having construction experience, they thought to buy cheap homes, retrofit them for eco-friendliness and then flip the homes for a handsome profit. Then the housing market imploded.
For both men, the importance of farming stemmed from health problems they blame on inoculations administered during their military careers. While the shots were intended to combat unpleasantries like anthrax poisoning, Smith says there were side effects.
Prior to the shots, Smith says he was never allergic to poison ivy or fire ants. “All of a sudden—Boom! A week later I was allergic to everything. And that happened to more than just a few guys.”
Smith sought to heal himself through organic food, opting to grow his own. Jeffers followed suit. “I got into [farming] just trying to fix my guts,” he says. “It was health by necessity.”
Steve Smith with his daughters
Having survived gnarly urban combat, Jeffers says a surprising benefit to agriculture was its therapeutic value, which continues to this day. “I’ll sit there for hours and pick weeds. Everything in the backdrop just goes away.”
One night around a fire pit, Jeffers and Smith talked about a local community garden that was selling produce to restaurants. Smith suggested they start “a zero-footprint food model by composting the waste from those same restaurants, growing their food, selling them back their food and closing the loop on the energy cycle.”
Eat the Yard broke ground thereafter with help from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national nonprofit that creates symbiotic relationships between farmers and veterans through agricultural mentorship and sustainable food production.
Smith and Jeffers initially focused on composting restaurant waste. Once they began harvesting produce they secured their first buyer: Ann’s Health Food Center in Oak Cliff. Over time they did business with local restaurants including Nova, Eno’s Pizza and Bolsa. Ann’s Health Food Center still sells Eat the Yard produce, as does Green Grocer in Lower Greenville.
Smith estimates that in 2013, he and Jeffers alone diverted over 200 tons of food waste from landfills and into beds now propagating organics including arugula, chocolate mint and garlic: all pulled from small residential and commercial plots between Preston Hollow and Oak Cliff.
“We’re turning down land at this point,” Jeffers says. “It’s just me and Steve. It’s great that people want to help, but it’s not the kind of help we need. We need manpower. It’s physiologically impossible to attend to more than eight plots that only total one-and-a-half acres at best.”
And, as with most upstart businesses, time and money become critical issues. While Eat the Yard has profited some from produce sales and residential farm consultation and installation, much of their operation’s overhead has come out of pocket. Jeffers pulls Army retirement checks while Smith co-owns a foundation repair business. While both men aspire to make Eat the Yard a profitable full-time endeavor, for now they’re plowing throw growing pains with deliberation, patience and ambition.
Eat the Yard must expand now strategically. Recently, Smith and Jeffers began working with the newly managed Dallas Farmers Market and hope to see their expansion lead downtown.
Smith entertains the idea of one day creating an urban farm park somewhere in Dallas, serving as a platform for youth education and encouraging locals to grow their own produce. What’s more, Smith says, “You could grow food there and feed the city without having to buy it from California.”
If Eat the Yard proves increasingly successful in the coming years, Smith and Jeffers ultimately hope to launch another ambitious initiative, what Smith describes as “a centralized retreat where we can house vets and make them well.” Perhaps, they will create a Veteran-Grown label for their produce. Whether or not these vets decided to remain farmers, at least for the short-haul, they would be given a temporary refuge.
“That’s the long-term goal,” Jeffers concurs, though both he and Smith admit that reaching, employing and healing fellow veterans will be a tactical and logistical challenge. But, problem solving under extreme circumstances is just the kind of thing the military expects of those who serve.
“I want to offer those same opportunities I’ve had,” Jeffers says. “If we can get that one guy, and he does get interested in it, and it keeps him from killing himself, it was all worth it for me.”