Military service makes its mark on people. For veteran Lawrence Rhone, those marks are evident even when he’s asked to spell his name.
“Lima, Alpha, Whiskey, Romeo, Echo, November, Charlie, Echo,” he recites while sitting outside unperturbed by the cold, wet weather this morning at his property in Scobey, Mont.
Rhone was a staff sergeant who served for 11 years in the Army. He then spent 26 years working as a linguist in Germany, where he met his wife, Gisela. Now half a world away, Gisela and Lawrence work the land that has been their home for nearly a decade.
“He supervises, and I work,” says Gisela. “And I tell him to do what I can’t do.”
Lawrence jokes that Gisela would say, “She does a lot of the heavy lifting. She does a lot of the lifting, not the heavy lifting. But she does the lifting, and she does the activities.” The banter between them is frequent, but it’s easy to see what a great team they make.
One of the main features of the farm is the verdant orchards, rich with various fruits. The Rhone’s grow species native to the region such as chokecherry, sand cherry, buffaloberry, wild plum, and black and yellow currant. Very little of the fruit is produced for profit. Instead, much of it is left for the local wildlife to feed on, preserving the ecosystem’s natural balance between native forage and animals.
The Rhones are creating a space for nature to heal itself and achieve a peaceful equilibrium. Plants and animals are not the only ones benefiting from their work.
The missing pieces
Together, the Rhones enjoy what seems like an idyllic life. However, behind Lawrence’s disarming humor, vision, and passion, there are past experiences common to many veterans which haven’t taken time to heal.
“I was in combat arms, and combat arms doesn’t necessarily translate to a civilian setting,” he says. “That purpose — whatever your military occupational specialty is — you’re searching for it.”
That missing piece can be deeply felt for a lot of veterans. For Lawrence, it cut right to his sense of self.
“Not everyone knows I’m Staff Sergeant Rhone, they just know, ‘Oh, that’s Lawrence Rhone.’ That rank signified a sense of self-worth, that I bring something to the table. A significant amount of something to the table.”
Self-worth and a sense of purpose are two of the five focus areas for Lawrence and Armed to Farm, a program from the National Center for Appropriate Technology which helps veterans transition from military service into a new life in sustainable agriculture. The other focus areas are camaraderie, battling shame (a sense of leaving your fellow soldiers behind or needing to do more), and the complex logistics of transitioning to farm life.
Lawrence is also closely involved with the Northeast Montana Veterans’ Coalition, bringing those same common themes to bear with a broader goal: suicide prevention. “The purpose of having those focus areas is keeping us honed in on the mission of reducing, and maybe someday eliminating suicide,” he says.
The quest for peace
The quest for peace and purpose led Lawrence to this small, northeast corner of Montana. Gisela says farming has made a tremendous difference in his life.
“He’s calmer, and he’s more peaceful. He enjoys that he makes his own schedule,” she says. “When he sleeps, he sleeps better.”
Life on the farm also helps Gisela. “I like the nature. Yeah, you have a street here but not a lot of cars. The stress level is down. Yeah, you have stress, you have to do a lot of things, but … it’s just calm and peaceful.”
“The most rewarding part,” Lawrence says, “is — number one — the sense of accomplishment you get by having this impact on this environmental setting and to see the wildlife come in. And then to be able to share this story with others and motivate them to do the same, and we’ve had the privilege of doing that and that’s great to see.”
The Rhones have hosted several retreats for veterans on the farm. The participants learn more than the basics of agriculture, they get firsthand experience in the therapeutic practice of working the land and they get to know Lawrence, who sometimes becomes a lifeline for these veterans when they face a crisis.
Long term, the Rhones hope to build small cabins on the farm to create an overnight retreat for veterans to more intensively learn how to transition out of military service and into agriculture. They hope to serve as a guide in post-military life, to help returning veterans find the purpose that will help save their lives.
Building a team
Part of Lawrence and Gisela’s goals are not just to introduce veterans and newcomers to sustainable farming, but also to smooth their path. Lawrence hopes they won’t have the same “bumps in the road” that they had when they first started.
When they were beginning their transition to the farm, Lawrence found that the first places he looked for help only left him feeling discouraged. But he kept pushing, even putting some of his military skills to use. That’s when he discovered the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“I was a recruiter in the Army, and we call it ‘area canvassing,’” he says. “You go in and you seek information and contact with individuals. I went in and that day a young conservationist named Andy Johnsrud was there, and I got the chance to talk to him and that was a much more positive experience.”
Johnsrud works as the Supervisory District Conservationist based out of Scobey for the NRCS. He remembers Lawrence first walking into his office full of ideas about what he could do on the land. “He came to see what the USDA could offer, what ideas we could help him out with.”
“Initially we planted trees around the property, we incorporated trees to have summer and late season blooms for pollinators, things like that,” Johnsrud remembers. “We also did the trees for wildlife, for cover and for shelter. Generally, we have plenty of food in this area, but the berries and the trees help supplement that.”
The trees have become very successful in attracting and sheltering wildlife. “I’ve seen antelope, white-tailed deer, raccoons,” says Lawrence. “I’ve seen coyotes come in right under our apple trees right here. We’ve got film of them; they just sit down and munch on crabapples. Especially in the winter, what we leave on the ground, they come and scratch the snow and take the fruit.”
Johnsrud and the NRCS also helped with financial and technical assistance, including designing, and setting up a micro-irrigation system to help make sure the trees have enough water in the first years of life to become established, while also conserving and efficiently using a limited resource in this traditionally arid landscape.
Lawrence also knew that he wanted his farm to grow into a community hub, where people from Scobey and all over could come, learn, and heal together.
“It’s been great working with them,” says Johnsrud. “They’re very welcoming into their home and into their life.”
“I think what makes them different is their mindset around the community and the importance of integrating agriculture in the community and what all can be done as a whole.”
With the help of the NRCS, the Rhones’ began construction of a high tunnel in the summer of 2022. They will use the space to grow fresh produce that they would otherwise not be able to produce on their property.
“We’re going to feed our community,” says Lawrence. “I don’t focus a lot on the sales part, I’m more about the production and the activity and the wellness that is derived from that activity. I hope we can produce fresh vegetables, because the vegetables that we have in our grocery stores have a lot of miles on them.”
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Lawrence hopes that any change doesn’t stop on their farm: “If we can get one going and do it, then maybe we can get another one going and do it and motivate others to do it or create a small coalition of high-tunnel folk to produce vegetables for the community.”
The Rhones’ are hoping to open their orchards for neighbors to come and pick their own fruit. Primarily because it helps build community, but also because, as Gisela puts it, “I can’t do it all by myself because of the heat. So, if they want some, they can come pick them.”
Despite the physical issues that limit both Lawrence and Gisela’s farm activities, they still love the work. “It’s a fulfilling work,” says Gisela. “You just go out, some people maybe listen to music, I just relax, I’ll just be picking.”
“You work, and your mind is concentrated on what you do, but nothing complicated. It’s just relaxing, it’s like meditation.”
That meditation, that peace, and that ability to find one’s purpose in the soil: these are the things that are being cultivated on this quiet parcel of land in northeast Montana.
The NRCS shares success stories as part of their conservation assistance programs. To learn more, you can visit your local service center, or visit the NRCS website.