An influx of funds boosts an agriculture program involving the Canandaigua VA and EquiCenter.

MENDON — Chuck Dill could sit at home or garden. He chose the garden.

Dill, an Army veteran from Fairport, paused between rows of red raspberries and ground cherries at the EquiCenter Farm garden on Wednesday. He wanted to tell how he got there.

Dill was one in a group of vets and staff who were harvesting greens, carrots, herbs and fruits from a three-acre garden trimmed in sunflowers at the EquiCenter, a nonprofit offering programs for veterans, people with disabilities and at-risk youths that is partnering with the Canandaigua VA Medical Center. From the garden, the group would soon move into the farm kitchen where the bounty would be the ingredients used in a hands-on cooking class — and make for a hearty lunch eaten around a big table.

It was all part of a recently expanded program at the EquiCenter to help veterans through agriculture. The Canandaigua VA announced a grant of $844,415 from the Office of Rural Health to allow more veterans to participate. With about 30 veterans already involved, the additional funds will enable 86 more veterans to take part. The grant also means vets will be able to take what they learn in an introductory farming class to the next level, through more advanced courses.

The program provides therapy as well as practical skills, said Dr. Danielle Lutz, a physical therapist and a VA care manager. More nine-week courses will be added, along with the addition of one-day workshops.

Workshops will focus on a variety of farming activities such as beekeeping, caring for horses and maple sugaring, Lutz said. Others instrumental in the partnership between the VA and the EquiCenter also were at the farm Wednesday.

Dr. Paul Dougherty, a chiropractor long involved with the programs, said he looks forward to more veterans coming on board and eventually being able to partner with other organizations as well.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I’d just be sitting home,” said Dill, who aspires to growing a home garden and eventually being able to produce all his own food. He felt good, he said, being outdoors, working in the garden, meeting other veterans and doing something useful.

“Rejuvenating” is how Marine Corps veteran Joe Loving explained being at the farm. Loving said he had a lot of aches and pain before participating in the program. He is in much less pain now, he said. He is also eating healthier and enjoying the benefits.

Air Force veteran Nathan Bush said he had almost no mobility before he got involved in the program. Suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and physical disabilities, he said he had tried all the standard treatments. He took various medications, used heated pools and other methods, he said.

At the EquiCenter, “I found there was so much more,” Bush said. He found it a safe, nurturing place.

“It feels good to be stretching, growing,” he said.

Connecting with other veterans is also a big part of it, he added.

“It has all the ingredients of a community,” Bush said. “You find people you vibe with.”

Bush explained how the grant will make it possible for veterans who have benefited from the therapeutic aspects of the program to use what they learn outside in the community, and to help them with careers and in the workforce. The EquiCenter provides the space, tools and training site that vets wouldn’t find otherwise.

Through the program, vets can go on to develop a business plan and test what they learn before launching it outside the farm, he said. Bush mentioned other organizations contributing to the success of the program, such as the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Cornell Small Farms program.

In the farm kitchen Wednesday, the counter filled with fresh garden vegetables, Chef Ellen Adams led the vets in choosing and preparing recipes for a midday feast. There was more than enough produce and Adams said the veterans would also have plenty to take home. It was a true farm-to-table scenario and one that even veteran Tom Dillard said he could get behind.

Dillard said he is good with gardening but cooking is foreign to him. He was game, however, to try making a butternut squash with apple cider.

The Canandaigua VA is one of 10 VAs nationwide, and one of three VAs in the New York/New Jersey VA health system to receive the grant. Lutz said the funds will take the program through the end of September 2019. It is part of the VA’s overall, whole-health approach for veterans, she said.

“In order for veterans to be their healthiest, to find the best for their well-being,” Lutz said.

What is the EquiCenter?

EquiCenter, at the William & Mildred Levine Ranch in Mendon, is a nonprofit facility serving people with disabilities, veterans and at-risk youths. The center provides a variety of equine-related programs with internationally certified instructors. Other programs include therapeutic horticulture on the property’s three-acre organic farm, canine-assisted activities, adaptive yoga and farm-to-table culinary classes. The EquiCenter is at 3247 Rush Mendon Road. For more information, visit https://www.equicenterny.org/ or call 585-624-7772.