Sowing Seeds of Hope
An injured soldier and his wife find healing on their Tennessee farm.
An Army vet and his wife found healing while growing a hops farm.
United States Army Capt. Michael Trost almost died. It was Feb. 20, 2012, and Michael was serving in Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, as a civil affairs specialist, working with local communities to help build infrastructure. He and his team were escorting U.S. Agency for International Development representatives to a village in the southeastern region of the country when the group came under machine-gun fire. Michael was hit five times and lost 12 units of blood before being taken by medevac to Kandahar, where he underwent the first of more than 30 surgeries to repair his body. Michael had lost most of one hand, including his index finger and thumb, and suffered wounds to his abdomen, legs and buttocks. The sciatic nerve in his right leg was severed, making it impossible initially for him to walk and causing excruciating pain that would last for several years, until his lower leg was amputated. And yet, a half-decade later the 55-year-old and his wife, Stephanie, embarked on a physically demanding new adventure: farming 25 acres of land in Madisonville, Tennessee. They purchased the property, which is located 30 miles south of their Maryville home, late last year. Soon after, they began working the land with the help of a backhoe donated through A Warrior’s Wish, a program
founded by a nonprofit veterans service organization called Hope for the Warriors. “Whether it’s trenching out lines or digging out areas for the equipment shed,” Michael says of the machine, “it’s just been a godsend. I don’t know what I would have done without it. It’s been an instrumental tool in helping me get this farm thing off the ground.” Michael has already put in an acre of organic hops, while Stephanie is installing organic vegetable beds. They’ve put up a chicken coop and a five-stall equipment shed, as well as 2,500 feet of fence. A greenhouse is on the way, and the pair are building a log cabin, which they plan to rent out through Airbnb and Farm Stay U.S. to help with the mortgage. Asked how he went from surviving such grievous injuries to actually thriving, Michael, who retired from the military in 2014, replies, “I got through my toughest times with my faith in Jesus Christ, my beautiful wife and an inner determination my dad instilled in me to never quit.” A California native, Michael enlisted right out of high school, inspired by his father’s career in the Marine Corps and by his greatuncles who fought in World War II. Michael spent 32 years in the Army, 20 of which were active duty, including a deployment to Mosul, Iraq, in 2004-’05. He is the recipient of numerous medals, among them a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Above, Capt. Michael Trost (center) with fellow soldiers in Afghanistan; below, work continues on the log cabin at the Trosts’ new farm.
I got through my toughest times with my faith in Jesus Christ, my beautiful wife and an inner determination my dad instilled in me to never quit.” —MICHAEL TROST
Michael and Stephanie, who have been married 11 years, moved to Maryville in 2008, where they set about converting the rural 7-acre parcel of land that surrounds their house into what Stephanie calls a hobby farm. It turned out to be great practice for their working farm in Madisonville. “We built multiple barns and added horses, chickens and donkeys,” she says. “We also had a big garden where we grew vegetables and put in an orchard. So we did a lot of farming stuff here on the property small-scale. We love it.” The couple’s time in paradise was interrupted first by Michael’s deployment to Afghanistan and then by his injuries, which forced him to spend 10 months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Although surgeons were able to save Michael’s right leg, because of complications he decided to have it amputated below the knee in April 2016. Nearly a year passed before he returned home, finally almost pain-free. A fan of craft beer, Michael had been tinkering with the idea of farming hops since around the time of his first convalescence in 2013, when he decided to plant an experimental hops garden at the Maryville property. Michael earned a certificate in professional brewing science from Knoxville’s South College, but his education didn’t end there. He and Stephanie are enrolled in the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture’s Veteran Farmer Program at Alexandria, Virginia. They make the 1,000-mile round-trip journey every month to participate in the program, where they study subjects ranging from soil management to crop rotation and farm land that once belonged to George Washington. All of that knowledge will come in handy as they continue to work their crop. Hop rhizomes produce vines that eventually reach 18 to 20 feet high. These woody tendrils are tied to a trellis system, and the flowers— which resemble pinecones—are harvested in early September. The plant is then cut down to about a foot above ground level, where it will sprout again come spring. Michael plans to sell the hops to commercial and home brewers, who
use the oil from inside the flower to flavor their beer. But he calls his time tending the farm “more therapeutic than anything. It helps me get up in the morning because it gives me a sense of purpose, a mission. Those rhizomes need me to water them and fertilize them and take care of them. If I have a limitation or something I can’t do, I just find ways to make it work. I tire a little bit more quickly these days, mainly because I’m getting older. It kind of catches up to you.” In addition to the backhoe he received from A Warrior’s Wish, Michael gets help from a young Marine he’s hired to assist him on the farm. Stephanie says she’s seen how working the land has not only benefited her husband but also their farmhand. “He struggles very badly with post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says of their helper. “He’s very antisocial. But he tells us every day, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing for me. I can’t tell you how this is helping me.’ I think farming is very cathartic for vets because it’s physically exhausting, but it’s also about creating something, being part of something and having your hands in the dirt. There’s something about just being out in the dirt that is healing.”
The Trosts’ first Madisonville hops crop was planted in the spring of 2018. Facing page, clockwise from top left: Michael and Stephanie on their wedding day; the couple at a Yankees game where Michael was presented an electric wheelchair; and Michael with comrades in Afghanistan. The man on the far right is Cpl. Robert Rose, who Michael says saved his life.