By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Proud Connection
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Mike Lewis said he used to spend hours trying to sell the produce harvested by Growing Warriors, a group of military veterans turned farmers.
But thanks to the Kentucky Proud Homegrown by Heroes program, Growing Warriors can't raise enough.
"Now people are calling us looking for food," said Lewis, director and founder of Growing Warriors. "I have more demand than I can supply, thanks to the help of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture."
Much of that demand of late has come from The Weekly Juicery, a Kentucky Proud fresh juice bar in Lexington that buys $4,100 worth of fresh produce per week. Lewis said Growing Warriors signed a contract recently in which he and seven other farmer/veterans supply half of that, particularly kale, romaine lettuce, and beets.
"Some of the produce they need can't grow here, like oranges," Lewis said. "But when their produce is grown in Kentucky, it cuts down on their transportation costs. Buying local also benefits our farmers, so we all grow, literally."
The Weekly Juicery owner Kimmye Bohannon said using Growing Warriors' Kentucky Proud produce to make their product "is exciting."
"We've been juicing their romaine and kale the past two weeks," she said on Nov. 12. "Unfortunately, they can't supply all of our demand. Right now, with one retail store, we use 13 cases of romaine and 13 cases of kale a week."
Bohannon's order could increase nearly six-fold to 75 cases of each per week with a planned five-store expansion. She just signed a lease to open The Weekly Juicery's second location in Louisville in the Westport Village shopping center near the St. Matthews neighborhood. Bohannon is looking at opening a store in Louisville's Highlands neighborhood, and a third Louisville location is a possibility.
"Mike is going to ramp up their [Growing Warriors'] production," Bohannon said, adding that she also met with Commissioner Comer on Nov. 12 about getting more Kentucky farmers involved. "We'd like to get a group growing kale, a group growing romaine, a group growing beets, and a group growing carrots so we can have a continuous supply.
"Commissioner Comer is going to help me identify farmers and help me get connected with farmers that might be interested and have capacity to do it. It could involve a lot of small farms. … His team has been incredibly helpful to us through this [expansion] process."
To meet increasing demand, Lewis said Growing Warriors is "scaling up" and training more veterans to become farmers. The program conducts monthly classes and workshops on-site at each of eight community gardens across the state.
Unemployed veterans earn a stipend working in one of the gardens. Two of them are located in Fayette County, with one each in Floyd, Hopkins, Madison, McCreary, Rockcastle and Warren counties.
Lewis, who was named one of four Local Food Heroes at last summer's Kentucky State Fair, runs the first certified "Homegrown by Heroes" farm in the nation, Gaining Ground Farm in Rockcastle County. Wife Melinda and son Roscoe, 3, help Mike on the 160-acre sustainable operation, where the Lewises raise pork and poultry and grow an assortment of fresh produce.
Growing Warriors was born when Mike observed the positive effect that farm work had on his younger brother, Fred-Curtis, after he was wounded while serving in Afghanistan.
"That's how we started doing all this," Mike said. "I saw an instant change in his attitude; he was my brother again. It helped him transition over into everyday life."
Fred-Curtis lived and worked with Mike after being shot in the back of the head by a sniper during a tour of duty with the 9th Special Forces. Working in the garden aided his rehabilitation, Mike Lewis said, and Fred-Curtis now runs his own farm near Pittsboro, N.C.
"He's doing a lot better," Mike said. "He still has memory issues, but [farming] has been the biggest help."
Lewis spoke at an event on Veterans Day at the Frazier History Museum in downtown Louisville, when Commissioner Comer announced that the Homegrown by Heroes brand was being adopted as a nationwide program.
"My goal in coming here is telling you what this label means to me," Lewis, a U.S. Army veteran and Rockcastle County farmer, said in a short speech at the event. "It gives consumers an opportunity to thank a veteran by eating well and buying local."
Sixth District Rep. Andy Barr, Mike's congressman, who introduced him to the crowd at the Homegrown by Heroes event, said farm work provides "an opportunity for veterans to move forward with their lives."
"Mike Lewis is a guy who walks the walk," Barr said. "He's passionate about this program."
More than 40 veterans and their families have benefited from Growing Warriors so far.
"We teach them how to farm, how to grow food, record keeping, pest and weed control – we cover the gamut," Mike said.
Three to four more community gardens are being planned in Kentucky, and three have been started in North Carolina, overseen by Fred-Curtis.
"This is not a position I ever thought I'd be in," Mike said, "But don't get me wrong – it's a great spot!"