An American flag flies over two acres in Southold. What an easy image for the mind to conjure up. Long before it became fashionable—at least among certain circles—to fasten the flag to the back of an old pickup truck, the sight of an American flag flying above rich soil was a vision of America itself. But here, on this leased farmland at the Agricultural Center at Charnews Farm on the North Fork of Long Island, both the flag and the land carry deeper meaning. They both belong to Riverhead native Tim Curry, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and, more recently, the founder of Fire for Effect Farms.
“I used to be fighting the Taliban; now I’m fighting weeds,” he says.
Which, I wonder, is harder?
Tim laughs. “Probably the weeds.”
No one would know better than Tim, who returned from his last tour of active duty in 2012. As an infantryman with the 1st battalion 26th infantry stationed in Afghanistan, Tim came to intimately understand his opponent overseas. What he did not understand, at least not back in 2012, was the opponent that awaited him at home: the almost-impossible work of healing a battle-beaten body, of reconciling a 20-something-year-old life with octogenarian-level weariness, and of readjusting to life as a now-discomfitingly comfortable American civilian.
“It was really hard,” says Tim. “My father passed away and I had a few friends that were just battling with stuff. I was in school and struggling myself, and I just got so frustrated that I couldn’t help anyone the way I needed to. In the military, I had gotten so used to this extreme kind of camaraderie and now I was home and alone.”
Tim sought help and found it at the Northport VA Medical Center, where he met fellow veterans who were also struggling to transition from soldier to civilian. But Tim’s time at the VA introduced him to so much more than new friends. First, his experience at the VA taught him how to access the resources he was entitled to as a veteran from the most prosperous country on the planet—somehow, quite shamefully, a Herculean task—and second, it revealed to him just how much his fellow veterans needed help accessing these resources for themselves. Then, Tim came home from the VA Medical Center and, while recovering, decided to try growing some radishes. He grew them successfully—these big, gorgeous radishes—and, delighted, gave them all away. Tim couldn’t believe the joy with which people received his simple radishes, just as he couldn’t believe the true peace he felt while growing them.
And so Tim’s post-war priorities became clear shortly after returning from the VA: He wanted to help veterans, however he could and however they needed, and he wanted to keep growing vegetables.
“Suddenly I had this new purpose, you know?” says Tim. “I had been in school, just trying to figure out what to do. I had wanted to be some kind of therapist that could help vets that were struggling, but school just wasn’t for me at that point. And then I had this idea for a farm—a total pipe dream. But I got determined and I found a way. Thank God for the Peconic Land Trust.”
Despite growing up in Riverhead, Tim had never heard of the Peconic Land Trust before.
“One of my friend’s moms told me about it,” he says.
Founded in 1983, the Peconic Land Trust is the single most important and prolific land- and agriculture-conservation organization on Long Island. Since its founding, it has served as a liaison between landowners, communities, municipalities and other organizations to protect roughly 14,000 acres of land, and has secured millions of dollars from the public and private sectors for land protection on Long Island. In the ongoing David and Goliath-esque battles between local farmers and real estate developers, the Peconic Land Trust invites farmers to stand on its shoulders for a fair fight—and often assists big wins.
“So I just started researching and I found a phone number,” says Tim. “Within six months, I had a lease for the farm.”
Like many young farmers on Long Island, Tim benefited from the Peconic Land Trust’s ‘Farms for the Future Initiative’—located in part at the Agricultural Center at Charnews Farm in Southold—which provides both established and rookie farmers affordable access to productive land. And so in 2017, with the land itself secured, Tim began to bring the rest of Fire for Effect Farms to life.
“For me, there have always been at least two parts to Fire for Effect,” says Tim. “First, from experience, I’ve seen that veterans don’t always even have food to eat, much less the medical care they require, and they often don’t get the benefits they’re entitled to simply because they don’t understand how to navigate the VA, which is a huge system. So the first thing I do is I help veterans with their disability claims, or if they want to go back to school, or if they’re homeless, I help bring them to the VA. That’s the system side. I know how to navigate it and so I help other veterans navigate it, too.”
Then there’s the farm itself. Since founding Fire for Effect Farms in 2017, Tim has had upwards of 20 veterans, mostly from the Vietnam War, helping him at the farm. It is a safe and satisfying place for warriors to work. There, on Tim’s two acres, veterans are free to exist as they are—without having to worry about any physical limitations or disabilities—and to enjoy the mental and physical benefits of being outside, of hearing birdsong, of putting their hands into warm, rich dirt.
“I think it kind of helps them build their confidence back,” says Tim. “Because a lot of these guys are dealing with bad backs, bad knees. Some of them are missing limbs. So just to be out there, knowing that they’re not being judged, is really therapeutic, I think.”
Tim and his fellow veterans grow everything from pumpkins to radishes, cucumbers to tomatoes; “whatever,” says Tim, “is easiest to donate.”
In 2022 alone, Fire for Effect Farms donated nearly 725 pounds of produce to local veterans, neighbors and churches. Additionally, Tim personally assisted 108 veterans in getting service connections and even got one veteran 24 months back on the GI Bill.
Since its founding, Fire for Effect Farms has donated more than 3,500 pounds of produce and assisted more than 220 veterans.
“And I’m still just getting started,” says Tim.
His five-year plan is to acquire more permanent land with room enough to build housing for disabled veterans. He also wants to build a memorial for combat arms troops—a physical destination in our flimsy age of Zoom, where veterans can find one another, gather and grieve however they want or need to.
“The thing I learned in the military is that it can always be worse,” says Tim. “Everything can always, always be worse. But nowadays I’m at the farm and, sure, there are weeds and, sure, it’s sometimes tough to help others navigate the VA system—but I’m at the farm. Life is good. And I want every veteran to be able to say that, to feel that. So that’s what I’m out here trying to do.”
For more information on Fire for Effect Farms, please visit fireforeffectfarms.org.