Members and guests of the Marne Chapter of the Association of the United States Army were treated with a lively presentation by a chef-farmer during the group’s monthly meeting at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center.
“CheFarmer” Matthew Raiford, a former 3rd Infantry Division soldier, is now a farmer, small-business owner and the program coordinator and associate professor of culinary arts at the College of Coastal Georgia.
As he explained his transition from soldier to chef to farmer, he talked about how agriculture and gardening can be therapeutic and financially rewarding. But it’s hard work, he told attendees April 15.
The Brunswick native said that when he joined the Army in 1986, he left the South for what he thought would be forever. He wanted to separate himself from all things Southern.
Nine years later — seven of which were spent overseas in Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Germany and South Korea — he said the Army wasn’t fun anymore. He left the Army in 1995 to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., as a 28-year-old college freshman.
“I loved the military,” Raiford said as AUSA members enjoyed their lunch. “There isn’t anything about that time in my life I would ever give away. It made me the person that I am. I was able to inhale that piece of chicken while you all were still eating.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I was still transitioning. … Transitioning was probably the hardest part of my life, and I’ve been out for 20 years.”
Raiford explained that in the Army and college, as soon as his friends found out he was raised in the South, they began talking about how much they longed for a home-cooked meal. Cooking was something he learned by watching his grandmother and aunts. Cooking for his friends led to going to culinary school.
He likened cooking a meal to his military experience. He explained that every time someone came to his home for a meal that was a new deadline he had to meet. He also related that when he left the Army he thought he was taking off his uniform, only to realize that in every career there is an expected uniform. He simply exchanged one uniform for another. When he works on the family farm in Brunswick, he wears overalls, but when he goes to the kitchen to prepare a meal, he wears his chef jacket.
While he and his sister were visiting family in 2010, he was listening to his grandmother, aunt and mother talking about the farm. His grandmother is in her 90s, he said, so this time, instead of telling them that they needed to go back to farming, he told them “we” need to go back to farming. At that moment, they turned over the 28-acre farm that had been in the family since 1874 to Raiford and his sister, who had just retired from the Navy.
As they drove back to their homes up North, he and his sister talked about it. By the time he got home, Raiford had already developed a plan of action and how they could make Gilliard Farms grow.
He resigned from his job and left for California to attend a course on organic farming. With a storehouse of knowledge, he came back to Brunswick and began work on the farm by first planting 100 fruit trees. His grandmother came out to inspect the trees then let him know the only ones likely to survive were the three fig trees. He said he would have saved a lot of money and effort if he had only relied on her knowledge and wisdom first.
Raiford said the Department of Veteran Affairs is interested in farming and helping veterans become farmers. Farming, or specifically, agritherapy can help the soldier with “unseen wounds” or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Planting a seed then nurturing it as it grows to produce tomatoes helps a soldier heal from the inside out, he said. The peace and quiet on the farm enables transitioning soldiers to tune into the sounds of nature and tune out the sounds of war still blaring in their souls.
Raiford and food alchemist Jovan Sage plan to open a retail location this summer for their organic farm-to-table restaurant, the Farmer and the Larder. For more information, email email@example.com.