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VA farm program spurs neighborhood garden in West Baltimore

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Posted at 4:37 PM, Jul 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-28 15:02:23-04

BALTIMORE, Md (WMAR) — Since graduating from the VA Farm program, Army Veteran Sye Sneed is making a huge difference in his West Baltimore neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester with a neighborhood garden.

Sneed has always had a green thumb, growing up on a farm in North Carolina.

“Being one with the earth and being part of the health of the planet was teaching me tings when I was younger,” said Sneed.

But it wasn’t until the height of COVID brought his PTSD to the surface, especially after his baby sister died from Lupus, that he sought out the therapy once again.

“She was someone I could protect, but she died in 2013. That’s when everything seemed to come crashing down,” said Sneed. “I wasn’t dealing with stress and trauma very well so I was on a downward spiral.”

He connected with the VA Farm program, a recovery oriented program to support employment, and was trained in horticulture and agriculture at the TALMAR horticultural therapy center in Parkville to become an urban farmer.

“I’ve seen improvements in their physical health just doing the physical labor, eating much better nutrition. Their mental health, of course,” said Laverne Harmon, the program manager of Vocational Rehabilitation Services with the Baltimore VA.

“When we got access to the farm and getting our hands and knees in the dirt, something was coming alive in me,” said Sneed.

When it came time to present a green space to graduate, he picked an empty lot in his neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester that was a dumping ground for trash.

He cleared both properties and started planting. Through the Farm program, he had the soil tested and learned that it contained lead, and that he couldn’t plant anything edible in the ground. He acquired pots and began planting herbs and beans in them. He trucked in dirt from his relative’s farm in North Carolina and then things really transformed. The seeds of hope began to grow and the neighborhood’s attitude started to change.

“Everybody is thinking about drugs and violence when we got mental health issues that are really not being addressed,” said Sneed. “So this was an opportunity because in the area where I’m from kindness is taken for weakness, people don’t always get to lean on something soft… When I work with young people in my neighborhood, I see the change in them as they work in the earth. A couple young drug dealers never knew how to hold a shovel. Now they are proud of it!”

Now he’s got lots of people helping maintain it and he hopes the idea is contagious.

“I hope to let it continue to grow. I want to put up a billboard with lessons on each plant. We’ve built a walkway and a gazebo. We’re collecting rainwater to water our plants. A neighbor donated a canister,” said Sneed. “I’m just hoping that something like dropping a seed in the ground and god allowing it to grow will inspire someone to do something similar.”

TALMAR operates a vegetable, cut flower, and egg farm inside of Cromwell Valley Park and uses the farm for the vocational and therapeutic VA FARMS program as well as occupational therapy and therapeutic horticulture programs. Veterans interested in participating in the 2023 cohort can learn more here. The 2023 program will begin in late March.