A group of five adults, posing for a photo, standing in front of a tower garden
AboutFace-USA team – Members of the AboutFace Farm team include (l-r) Jeff Ely, veteran volunteer; Carol LaBranche, president; Jen Proffitt, finance manager; Marion Pierre, project manager; and Joe LaBranche, CEO and founder of AboutFace-USA. Photo by H. N. Kolich

Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County

According to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is the fastest growing agribusiness sector in Georgia. CEA is an indoor produce growing system through which farmers control light exposure, temperature, humidity, and other plant growth factors while minimizing the damaging effects of severe weather and pests. The need for alternative growing options became clear several years ago when droughts in California and Arizona – where 94 percent of the U.S. supply of lettuce was grown – revealed a vulnerability in food security.

While CEA can help fulfill the year-round demand for lettuce, spinach, herbs, and other fresh greens, the team at AboutFace Farm in Tri-County Plaza seeks to fulfill other critical needs by growing community and supporting whole-health wellness.

Stacks of lush green plants growing in horizontal rows.
Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is the fastest growing agribusiness sector in Georgia. Photo courtesy of Oasis Biotech.

The indoor, aeroponic vertical farm is a collaboration between AboutFace-USA®, whose mission is to support whole-health wellness and community connection for U.S. military veterans, first responders, and their families, and Sweetwater Urban Farms, a CEA farm growing lettuce, greens, herbs, and seedlings for hydroponic tower gardens. AboutFace-USA® founder Joe LaBranche wants AboutFace Farm to become a center for intergenerational communication between veterans and non-veteran county residents by using gardening as the connection point.

“What we try to do is bring veterans in here and let them know they aren’t alone,” LaBranche said. He believes that becoming part of a purposeful project helps veterans who have returned home achieve a positive outlook.

The healing power of horticulture therapy is well documented. Through AboutFace Farm’s Project GROW (Gardening, Recreation, Outreach, & Wellness), veterans, first responders, family members, and community members can learn gardening, teach others, reconnect and build relationships, and find direction and purpose in a serene and stable environment.

A white minivan wrapped with promotion for AboutFace USA
AboutFace-USA® provides access to counseling, support groups, and referrals for clinical therapies to local veterans and their families. Photo by H. N. Kolich

“Project GROW is Joe’s brainchild,” said AboutFace-USA® President Carol LaBranche. “He saw how these towers and gardening can help veterans. It’s little things, like being responsible for a living plant and watching it grow, that help them learn coping skills.”

Sweetwater Urban Farms co-owner Sheree Crowe, who manages AboutFace Farm, explained that gardening stimulates and integrates all the senses. Further, she said, “what we eat translates directly into how we feel.” Nutrition is another aspect of what AboutFace Farm volunteers and clients learn.

“We’re promoting mental wellness and we’re really about whole health,” Carol said. “We want to remove the stigma and provide support.”

“Veterans may not see themselves as a mentor when they’re experiencing problems, but they can help others,” Joe said. “Gardening takes the mind off post-traumatic stress, especially if you’re teaching another person how to use the grow tower.”

Through AboutFace-USA®, north Georgia veterans also have access to peer support groups and one-on-one counseling, financial literacy coaching, and referrals for clinical therapies and other healing programs offered by certified professionals. Programs are free to local veterans and their families, and online offerings are free to everyone.

AboutFace Farm hosted its grand opening on Saturday, May 11, 2024, and by Wednesday, veterans were coming in to enjoy the inviting seating areas, have a cup of coffee and conversation, and participating in workshops and wellness programs.

AboutFace Farm hosts free workshops on aeroponic gardening every second and fourth Saturday of the month at 4 p.m., and everyone is welcome to come learn together.

To see the schedule of events, visit https://www.aboutface-usa.org/events/.

For more information about programs, contact AboutFace-USA® Project Manager Marion Pierre at programs@aboutface-usa.org or call 888-766-0222.