Located on Montrose Road, in the midst of horse pastures, is a small vineyard, O.T.L Farms. The O.T.L. stands for off the land. This farm represents the ways in which Fort Bragg and its surrounding communities are connected.
Davon Goodwin was a motor transport operator in the Army Reserve and during a deployment to Afghanistan on Aug. 31, 2010 a vehicle he was in ran over a 500 pound improvised explosive device. Goodwin broke his L1 and L2 vertebrae and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“Life took a kind of dramatic turn,” he said.
While attending rehab for his injuries from the explosion, Goodwin made the decision to go to college and get a degree.
“I felt like the only thing that was going to help me was to get back to college,” he explained.
He went on to complete a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology and Botany at the University of North Carolina in Pembroke. In 2012, around the time he completed his degree, he was diagnosed with narcolepsy, a condition that is associated with the TBI he suffered in Afghanistan.
“When I graduated nobody would hire me because of the narcolepsy … you can be a hindrance to an organization … it’s a big liability you know driving a state vehicle or being around machinery,” said Goodwin.
Concerned for his and his Family’s futures, Goodwin was unsure where to turn next. It was at this juncture that he met the lease-holders to the land on which his farm is now situated.
“I met Dr. Neil Griffin and his wife Soledad Griffin, who own this property, they were looking for a new farm manager, and I was like well I’m pretty sure I can manage, and I mean, the farming part will come, and then it was like a match made in heaven ever since,” said Goodwin.
“Two years ago, they (the Griffins) let me lease as much acreage out here as I wanted to.
It’s (agriculture) my passion. It probably saved my life … without this property I probably wouldn’t be here and I feel like if other veterans had the same … this is not the fix all to our problems, it is just one in the tool box. For me it’s just really soothing out here. I mean, yeah its hard work, but your problems just kind of disappear. You don’t think when you’re out here,” he explained.
Goodwin does not mince words about the importance of community members who were mentors on his pathway to healing. He described meeting the farmers in the community by driving around seeing people on tractors and simply asking them questions.
“People are really willing to help you and obviously they honor your service as a Soldier,” he said.
He explains that without the support of local farmers and land owners his path might have been very different.
“This has been a heck of a journey, I mean, I never thought being an inner-city kid I would be out here on a farm, it wasn’t really supposed to happen like that,” Goodwin explained.
Not only have local farmers supported him, but the community at large have also been a part of his reintegration and success in civilian life.
“The community is going to engage you whether you want them to or not. People drive past here (O.T.L. Farms) all the time, and if the gate is open they are going to come in. Sometimes you need that. Sometimes you may be out here too long alone and the neighbors always come by and check on you. It has given me a greater sense of community then I have ever had,” said Goodwin.
O.T.L. Farms has in the past included livestock, but currently is focused on growing four varietals of grape; two are wine, juice and jelly varietals and two are eating and table grapes. Approximately 1,000 pounds of table grapes will go to the Sandhills Farm to Table, which is a local farming cooperative.
“Having a CSA is a great way to increase profitability and increase community interaction,” Goodwin explained.
When the wine varietals are harvested, they are slated to go to Cypress Bend Winery this year, but have in the past also been sold to Southern Pines Brewery. Purchase of Goodwin’s locally-grown grapes highlights another way in which the community surrounding Fort Bragg has been supportive of Goodwin and his business.
Goodwin also gives back and remains connected to the military through training support. Soldiers visit dairy farms and chicken houses, as well as Goodwin’s farm, enabling them to see every aspect of agriculture possible.
“They bring Soldiers out and introduce them to agriculture, before (deployment),” he said.
The goal is for them to leave with a cultural sensitivity to agriculture and what it means to the rest of the world.
“In most of the rest of the world agriculture is how they survive. They (Soldiers) come out and we go over everything from ‘this is a sheep, this is a goat, this is a grape’. They come out about once a season,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin has made it his focus to give back to his community in response the support he has received.
“So many people go hungry and it just doesn’t make sense. And especially when we (North Carolina) are like the third top growing state in the nation, but we are one of the hungriest states in the nation. That for me became like a new mission to make sure that my community had access to healthy food,” Goodwin said.
This passion and platform have secured Goodwin a competitive fellowship over the summer at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in White Plains, New York. Only two farmers were chosen for this honor.
“It’s what I call a perfect farm. The Rockefellers own the property and donated it to the Stone Barns Organization, and Stone Barns works on food development. They work on the food system,” he said.
Goodwin’s pathway to involvement with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture was through his membership in the Farmer Veteran Coalition. The primary mission of the FVC is to create a collaboration of farming and military communities. They cultivate the unique skills a veteran possesses into the skills needed to strengthen rural communities and create sustainable food systems.
“Everyone obviously has their own way for dealing with their pain of war. I feel like my way of dealing with it was trying to have a new focus. I tell anybody being a farmer is just like being a Soldier … I tell everyone it is the same lifestyle. It is the same thing. It is the same work ethic. The same skills that make a good Soldier makes a great farmer,” Goodwin explained.
“I have met a lot of other combat veterans who look to this as a new way of life and its surprising how many wounded veterans farm as well. I think for all of us, it’s just humbling to be able to serve your community again and I feel like that’s the sense of purpose that keeps you going,” he said.