After a medical retirement from the Air Force, Zephrine Hanson felt broken and in need of healing. When she started farming, she found the care she put into the soil and plants was in turn nurturing her.
Hanson’s work as what she calls a “micro farmer” and her collaboration with other people of color and underserved communities in the Denver area recently earned her recognition from Bob Evans “Our Farm Salutes” program. She also received a $25,000 grant in the company’s Heroes to CEOs competition.
Bob Evans, which operates a chain of restaurants and sells some of its products in grocery stores, also provides mentorship for veterans, Hanson said. That alone is valuable, she said.
The grant will help, too. “Now, this year, I have money upfront to pay my vendors,” Hanson said.
Her business, Hampden Farms, will also be able to host community events and continue to support other entrepreneurs by using her skills as a photojournalist to help get the word out for them.
Hanson was involved in journalism in high school and worked as a photographer and in communications when she joined the U.S. Air Force straight out of high school. She was stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. She met her husband, a fellow airman, there.
“I needed college money. I needed life experience and I needed to be on my own. The Air Force presented that experience,” Hanson said. “Of course, when you’re 18, you have no idea what you’re really signed up for.”
She covered all kinds of events, from VIP visits to the base to crime scenes. Hanson was a medical photographer at the hospital. Her last assignment was in the morgue.
“I spent eight years in the military. I saw a lot of really hard things,” Hanson said. “I saw heroes and I saw some of the most heinous things. There was no way to process it.”
Hanson said at the time, the military really didn’t have a way to help people to heal. “They were just like ‘You’re a broken soldier, you’re a broken airman. You have to move on.’ ”
Hanson and her husband moved to California, where she grew up. She stepped away from photography and storytelling. She took a class in plant biology and liked it, but didn’t see it leading to a career.
During that time, Hanson became a mother. Her three children, who are schooled at home, were diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. The family moved to Colorado in 2016. Hanson’s husband lived in the Denver area while his father was stationed at the now-closed Lowry Air Force Base.
“Our life in California just wasn’t panning out the way we wanted it to. It was a faster pace and we didn’t want to raise kids there,” Hanson said. “And knowing that we had to home-school, we wanted more space.”
Her path to farming wasn’t a straight one. Hanson was at an alternative medicine conference where people were talking about the role of psychedelic substances.
“And this one guy said, ‘I’m into chickens.’ And I was, ‘I don’t know about you.’ ”
That’s when she learned about Veterans to Farmers, which trains veterans in agriculture and connects them with other programs and grants. The goal is to give veterans an opportunity to learn new skills as well as ways to recover from trauma and PTSD.
Hanson signed up for a multiweek course and hands-on learning through a partnership between Veterans to Farmers and the Denver Botanic Gardens, which hosts the program at its Chatfield Farms site in Littleton. She learned about planting, harvesting and tending crops.
“I thought it sounded like an amazing opportunity. I was also just incredibly sad and depressed and was willing to try anything to be my healthiest version at the time for my kids and my partner,” Hanson.
And for herself, she added. Hanson grows herbs and other plants on a quarter of an acre where she and her family live in east Denver. She also has plots at Chatfield Farms.
Hanson uses lavender and other ingredients raised by local farmers to make bath and wellness products, which she sells online, through women-owned boutiques and community-supported agricultural groups.
Farming led Hanson to pick up her cameras again and resume telling stories. She uses her communication skills to tell the stories of such organizations as Veterans to Farmers, Frontline Farming, the Black and Brown Growers Collective, the East Denver Food Hub and the farm business Sow Sistas.
“I came to farming for my mental health. I didn’t think I would get back to photography, storytelling, any of that,” Hanson said. “But it was another door that opened. I care about the challenges for veterans, for Black women, for people who are systematically underrepresented outdoors across the board.”
Farming has changed her, Hanson said. It has taught her about adaptability and resilience.
“I believe that it’s made me a better friend, a better partner, a better mom,” Hanson said. “It’s grounded me.”
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