Marvin Frink of Briarwood Cattle Farm, LLC in Red Springs, North Carolina, is a veteran of the U.S. Army who came to farming as a way to cope with PTSD, anxiety and depression. Today, he calls farming “Agri therapy,” and he shares it far and wide to help others with their own mental health challenges. Marvin explains how it works this way, “It’s just a seed in the soil where we get a chance to apologize for what we’ve been through in life. We plant that apology and see it grow. It becomes a garden.”
Marvin completed three deployments in Iraq and then spent 16 years as a civilian anti-terrorism specialist. The experiences he’s had live on in the form of nightmares, migraines and bouts of hyper-vigilance. Like far too many veterans suffering from PTSD, that pain nearly drove him to suicide. A recent Wounded Warrior Project survey found that one in four vets say they’ve experienced suicidal thoughts in the past year.
It was Marvin’s dad, Reverend Kirby, who suggested farming as a way to help manage his mental health. “My dad was my hero. He was a minister who was beloved by everyone who knew him. He’d always say, ‘Keep pushing,’” says Marvin. But when Marvin’s dad saw him struggling to integrate into civilian life, he arranged for Marvin to spend time with a friend who raised cattle. “My dad and I would to the rodeos a lot together when I was growing up—that was our way of spending time together. On our way home, we’d stop for ice cream, because ice cream makes everything better,” says Marvin. “My dad got cancer around the time I was giving up on life. He gave me back life, sending me to Mr. Williams’ ranch.”
Towards the end of his day on the cattle ranch, Mr. Williams tasked Marvin with bringing feed to the cattle. “I made my way out to the field on my own and brought them their feed. And then I sat down and watched them as they ate. Soon I’d started talking to them, and I found some peace.”
“So many soldiers have no plan B…I want to show them that farming is something they can do that lets them continue to serve their community, and this great country feeding it and teaching the next generation how to farm.”
That experience inspired Marvin and in 2018 he bought 42 acres of farmland about an hour away from the U.S. Army facility Fort Bragg. He says, “I could not fail my dad. That’s what gave me my push.” Today Briarwood Cattle Farm has a herd of 113 Black Angus cattle, in addition to chickens and hogs, all raised on pasture. “My dad named this farm; it’s Briarwood Cattle Farm after the place I come from. It helps me to never forget my roots.”
Marvin’s career in the military offered valuable skills for farming: how to think on his feet, to respond to unexpected conditions, to care for his new charges like he did for the soldiers once under his watch. But finding other resources was a bigger challenge. “I started farming out of a one-inch binder. I sketched out with a farm I didn’t have yet. It was imaginary, but it was tangible with that binder my hand,” Marvin explains.
He began extensive research, calling on all the resources he could find to create a viable business plan for the farm, including North Carolina State and North Carolina A&T. He visited farmers markets and watched how farmers marketed their products, and he talked with everyone he could about the best way to bring local beef to market. “I went to my local agriculture extension. Everything was old and dusty; some of it was on VHS videos! But a friend turned me on to the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Their resource center was for so helpful to me. And I’ve turned a lot of people here at Fort Bragg on to it.”
Marvin’s cattle are integral to his Agri therapy. “The cows help me open up. I talk to them about anything that’s on my mind. I talk to them at night, and in the morning. They don’t judge me,” he explains. “Whatever it is that’s on my mind, I get a chance to leave it at the fence line. I call them my team. They’re the best therapist and they love to hear from me and I get that validation of feeling wanted and needed just like an NCO (non-commissioned officer) in the Army. I give them appreciation, and they give it back to me in three times the amount.”
That validation and appreciation is essential not just for cows. “As people we don’t show each other love often enough,” Marvin says. “Let me give you an example, I met a farmer veteran last year, an older gentleman. I hadn’t been in touch in a while and I called him out of the blue today. He began to cry and he told me, ‘I’m so glad you called. Since I saw you last, I’ve had a stroke. I had to sell my cows. I’m depressed and I miss my friends.’” He meant, of course, his cows. Many a farmer who has sold off a herd feels that loss deeply.
“I could hear the change in his voice, as we talked,” Marvin says. “I could hear how he became alive again. It was a simple thing…. To show him that he is loved. That is what the cattle do for us.”
Marvin’s wife Tanisha is another essential player on his team. Married seven years now, this woman who Marvin calls “my everything,” came into his life thanks to the farm. Marvin had connected with a school in Hoke County, to work with students with parents returning from military service. The students came out to the farm, learned about Agri therapy, took photos, learned about PTSD and the stressors of military service, and asked questions. Among those students was a boy named Rameriz, who had just moved with his mom from Norfolk, Virginia. Rameriz brought his mom to the farm one day and as both Tanisha and Marvin say, “We’ve been together ever since.”
The farm is a family effort, with all but one of their six children, ranging in age from high school-aged to 33, involved in the daily operation. “Everyone gets their hands into it,” Marvin says. “We didn’t and still don’t push them. We ask them, ‘How would you like to be involved?’ They each bring their own individual skills to the operation.”
Marvin and Tanisha welcome all kinds of people to Briarwood Cattle Farm, LLC, including military families, school children, members of their church and local community. The Wounded Warrior Project is an essential partner in this work. Tanisha says, “Everyone who comes to the farm, when they leave they want to start a farm. Marvin’s passion can make a person who’s scared of a fly want to have a herd of 100 cattle!”
Marvin sells his grass-fed meat, poultry and eggs directly to his customers with home delivery. Marvin emphasizes food safety and is adamant about the importance of his products’ temperature. “When we pick up our products from the processor, it comes into our refrigerator truck at the same temperature and we deliver the product straight to restaurants and our customers.” He continues, “When we arrive at the farm, it goes into our storage freezers at the same temperature. This preserves the safety, freshness and taste of the product.” Marvin says this vigilance has resulted in people seeking out his products from around the world. But he counts families and restaurants across North Carolina among his most loyal customers.
Though he has passed away, Marvin’s dad continues to guide the farm’s future. The next step in its evolution is Briarwood Custom Meats, LLC a 27,500 square foot meat processing facility that will be able to process 100 head per day of beef and 100 head of hogs. The building is up already, and though the equipment is extremely costly, Marvin is optimistic that he will complete the project, offering his own farm and local small-scale beef and pork producers a crucial link in the local and regional food system.
Marvin is careful to stress that Agri therapy is important, but it’s not a fix all. He credits Michael O’Gorman, a farmer and founder of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, for being there at his lowest point. “He was right there with me when I wanted to take my life. He said, ‘I’m not giving up on you.’”
Marvin works every day to maintain his mental health. He sees a therapist once a month and has an extensive network of people he connects with, offering them validation and receiving it in turn. He says, “We all just want to be heard. We want someone to let us know that we are valued, loved and appreciated.”
Marvin’s passion lies in equal parts with agriculture and in helping people. “So many soldiers have no plan B,” he says. “I want to show them that farming is something they can do that lets them continue to serve their community and this great country, feeding it and teaching the next generation how to farm.”
To learn more about Briarwood Cattle Farm, LLC, please visit and support them at www.BriarwoodCattleFarm.com.