How a military career led this Seattle-area nurse to farming

Kayla McCarthy is trying to leave her home base better than she found it by creating community in a garden.

a person in purple overalls with long brown hair holds a shovel while smiling at the camera

Kayla McCarthy at the Lewis North Community Garden at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on June 7, 2022. With the help of JBLM staff and veterans, McCarthy is trying to make farming and gardening more accessible to her community on the military base. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Every day after her shift as an Army nurse, Kayla McCarthy retreats to her happy place: a half-acre field in the shadow of the horse stables and an RV storage park on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. 

 

A year ago, the field near Interstate 5 was overwhelmed with invasive grasses. Today, thanks in large part to McCarthy, it is filled with the beginnings of intentional, edible plants nestled in three dozen raised garden beds.

McCarthy carefully steps around compost heaps, tall grasses and garden equipment at the Lewis North Community Garden on a sunny June Saturday, admiring the sprouts before grabbing a weed wacker to tame some of the taller remaining grasses. 

The 30-something Second Lieutenant from Seattle never expected to become a farmer, let alone see gardening as the thing she builds her life around. But in the process of pursuing the Army nursing career she had aspired to since high school, farming became her passion.

“After encountering the garden last year, I couldn't stop thinking, this could be such a better place if we could just get people excited about coming out and gardening. It's really been therapeutic for me,” she says, her muck boots squelching near her beds of chard, cabbage and sunflowers, ahead of attending a garden work party and the location’s first-ever gardening tutorial that morning.

McCarthy is trying to make that practice more accessible to her community on base, and she’s doing it with support from JBLM staff and military veterans drawn to nurturing themselves and others by nurturing the earth. 

Mangoes and onions

McCarthy, who joined the Army straight out of high school to gain medic skills and earn money to pay for a nursing degree, landed in a reserve unit at JBLM in 2008. While going back and forth between JBLM and assignments in Alaska and Africa, she had no idea there were community gardens on base. Launched in the 1970s, the JBLM gardens had been mostly well-loved and tended up until the pandemic, when invasive grasses began to creep in. 

A person in purple overalls with long brown hair wheels a wheelbarrow of mulch through garden beds. There is a forest behind her.

Kayla McCarthy wheelbarrows mulch to lay near her garden beds at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, June 7, 2022. With the help of JBLM staff and other veterans, McCarthy is trying to make farming and gardening more accessible to her community on the Army base. (Amanda Snyder/ Crosscut)

Kayla McCarthy wheelbarrows mulch to lay near her garden beds at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, June 7, 2022. With the help of JBLM staff and other veterans, McCarthy is trying to make farming and gardening more accessible to her community on the Army base. (Amanda Snyder/ Crosscut)

Her deployment as a medic to Djibouti in 2012 for a humanitarian mission with a civil affairs unit opened her eyes to farming and conservation. While developing relationships with locals so the military could retain access to a strategic area, her team interacted with a particularly engaging farmer. In addition to growing mangoes and onions, this man also served as caretaker of an endangered antelope preserve next door, and was creating an agritourism business to introduce people to his work. McCarthy and her colleagues helped spread awareness of the preserve, so that local shepherds wouldn’t graze their goats there and would stop burning trees that the antelopes needed for food. 

Getting to know the area under the mentorship of this farmer and preserve caretaker, Kayla got hooked on working in the dirt. “That was the first time in my life where I learned that farmers are really genius, intuitive people,” she says. “Not only are they farming and growing food, but they have their hands dipped in a lot of different things.”

When she returned home, she started a weekly work-share program at Jubilee Farm in Carnation. “I started to just love this work so much, I convinced them to let me do a work-share in the offseason,” she said. 

For seven years, while getting her nursing degree, McCarthy’s life revolved around the farm. It dictated her eating: As a single person living alone in an expensive city, McCarthy figured out how to freeze, ferment and dehydrate produce, until she achieved essentially her entire diet from manual labor with no money exchanged. 

Farming at Jubilee deepened her desire not only to farm, but to farm professionally in the state she grew up in. 

“My dad jokes, ‘If I knew that you're going to do this, I would have had you in 4-H as a kid,’ ” she says.

Healing while growing

After earning her nursing degree and being reassigned to JBLM a year ago as an active duty nurse, she wondered briefly if farming had just been a phase. She didn’t share her passion with others in the military, thinking they might not understand. But as an Army nurse, she noticed similarities between her medical work and gardening. Both focus on preventive care.

Desperate to get her hands back in the soil, McCarthy discovered an opportunity right under her nose. An online search revealed the Lewis North Community Garden, and she rented a plot for a year for $25.

a person wearing purple overalls uses a weed whacker while wearing an orange helmet. They are in a field next to a fence.

Kayla McCarthy uses her weed wacker to do some trimming on her lunch break near her garden beds at the Lewis North Community Garden on Joint Base Lewis-McChord on June 7, 2022. McCarthy keeps her weed wacker in the back of her truck now because she stops by the garden to do work often. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Kayla McCarthy uses her weed wacker to do some trimming on her lunch break near her garden beds at the Lewis North Community Garden on Joint Base Lewis-McChord on June 7, 2022. McCarthy keeps her weed wacker in the back of her truck now because she stops by the garden to do work often. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

But the gardens were in a state. Gardening felt isolating at first, and she struggled, unsure who to go to about water leakages, equipment failures, grazing deer, invasive grasses and mysterious compost piles. Before she could plant anything, she had to pull up waist-high weeds. One of the biggest gardening challenges for military members: keeping the plants watered and growing while they are training elsewhere.

But having any opportunity to garden was invaluable to her well-being. Military members have so little control over their workdays and so many competing priorities that having something as straightforward and rewarding as food gardening can really complement their lives. 

“It gives me something tangible … that nourishes me,” she says, amid go-go-go military training. In contrast to nursing in a sterile environment, manual labor is dirty and can be solitary. 

And as an Army nurse privy to the vulnerability of the human body, gardening makes her appreciate even more the ability to do hard things.

“In the military, it's all about using what you have to get the job done,” she says. “If you're in a position, and the Army puts you there, then even if you don't believe in yourself, there's someone else that believes in you.”

Over that first year, McCarthy found camaraderie with two other garden regulars, including Chaplain Kari Maschhoff. 

“In my line of work, I find people going through difficult times. And so one of the things that is very helpful is for people to be able to do things with their hands to do creative things to address some of the PTSD and some of the war trauma that we have all experienced over the last 20 years,” says Maschhoff, who was working on the rhubarb beds.

McCarthy also saw a few other families dealing with the same gardening difficulties she had in the pandemic. 

Raised garden beds full of early-season green plants

People rent out the garden beds to grow their plants and flowers at the Lewis North Community Garden on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, shown here on June 7, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

People rent out the garden beds to grow their plants and flowers at the Lewis North Community Garden on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, shown here on June 7, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

McCarthy wants to leave the garden better than when she found it, and to make it easier for other people to enjoy something that brought her so much comfort — and skills to fall back on when she eventually leaves the military. 

“I feel like as soldiers are ready to transition out of the military, there's a lot of opportunities for training in different trades … [but] there's not really a trade school for farming,” McCarthy says.

When McCarthy arrived last year, Maschhoff says, “you could tell this was going to be a place that she found meaning and connected with people and had ideas.” She found meaning in encouraging McCarthy, who brought vision and eventually became a volunteer manager supporting the garden revitalization and expansion. 

Farming is networking

Anything on a military installation necessarily involves a lot of red tape, and there are many parties involved in this effort — from the base's Department of Public Works, to Earthworks, to Sustainability JBLM, to the base's Department of Fish and Wildlife. Eager to get the garden off the ground, Kayla started volunteering for and building relationships with departments involved in every aspect of the garden, from leak repairs to compost delivery. Something as simple as getting a port-a-potty delivered required months of negotiation. “That was a big victory for us,” she says. 

McCarthy started making and leveraging connections around and beyond the base, including in the local military veteran farming community. 

While looking for money to build out a fence to better keep out deer, Kayla joined Zoom meetings of the Washington state chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a group dedicated to helping veterans get into farming. She not only received a $1,000 grant, but an invitation to join the organization’s board.

A person in purple overalls with long hair closes the door to a white shed while holding a shovel.

Kayla McCarthy closes the tool shed for the Lewis North Community Garden on Joint Base Lewis-McChord on June 7, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Kayla McCarthy closes the tool shed for the Lewis North Community Garden on Joint Base Lewis-McChord on June 7, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

John Adams, a local shellfish farmer on the board of that organization, says McCarthy is an inspirational leader committed to improving communities. “Kayla is an incredible soldier, with enthusiasm, tireless energy and drive, and she has this unique ability to spot the center of gravity of systems,” he says. “She is wonderfully motivated with great enthusiasm and focus.” 

She connected with Garden-Raised Bounty, or GRuB, a nonprofit in Olympia that helps low-income families start gardening, for help building more raised garden beds at the other smaller community garden on base, McChord Community Garden. She got more than she bargained for. 

Beau Gromley, a GRuB leader also on the board of the state’s Farmer Veteran Coalition, spent the majority of his military life on JBLM, and was thrilled when McCarthy reached out about raised garden beds. 

“There’s been a buzz about Kayla,” he says, calling her a “rock star volunteer for the Army.” Not only was GRuB able to help build the beds, but it just started hosting monthly garden training sessions on base. 

“It's just amazing how much she's on top of her Army duties — which is a lot already,” says Gromley’s partner, Jennah Kemp, lead garden builder with GRuB and the organization’s farmer veteran project specialist. “She's just taken on so much of this on her own just because she's so passionate about it and wanting to spread the benefits of getting your hands in the dirt and growing your own food.” 

In the fall, McCarthy and GRuB connected with Amanda Anderson, an outdoor recreation business manager in JBLM’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation office. Anderson helped get JBLM support for McCarthy’s garden vision, and assisted her in figuring out who else could help her breathe new life into the garden.

Not everyone on base can grow their own food, and McCarthy is aiming to donate a portion of the garden’s bounty to a food pantry on base. 

What’s next 

Military lives are nomadic, so McCarthy has been looking for ways to keep the gardens going when she leaves. She has connected with Anderson’s team, Master Gardeners and, recently, with the Association of the U.S. Army, which is interested in leveraging the garden for educational and mentorship purposes, so people can get into gardening more easily. 

With an additional $500 grant from Washington State University and increasing demand for garden space, she’s figuring out how to add more beds, an automated drip irrigation system and more. Anderson says that all the beds at the garden, as well as another smaller garden on base, are fully rented out this year, and credits McCarthy with its popularity.

“I have never met anybody so passionate about gardening. I envy how passionate she is about it, and I'm really happy that we had crossed paths and that we've been able to work together to see her goals through,” Anderson says. 

And all the while, McCarthy's plotting how to create a farm of her own as a first-generation farmer. "I am planting roots on my farm as we speak!" she says, of a one-acre plot she recently leased in the area.

But farms are difficult to run, let alone start, amid the competing hurdles of decreasing land access as farms consolidate, climate change and the expense of resources and labor. 

“Having a background in the military and working in health care all my adult life, it's really set me up for success,” McCarthy says. “I'm not scared of a challenge. I'm not scared to go out and fight for something that I believe in.” 

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