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Veteran and Appalachian alumnus uses his love of farming as therapy
(Published feature – the Mountain Times and Appalachian Today, and the top read/viewed/shared feature story of 2013 for Appalachian Today, with more than 1,700 Facebook “Likes.”)
BOONE—Appalachian State University alumnus Cory Bryk fought insurgents in Iraq, but right now his biggest fight is with the rain.
“You’re always fighting something and the stress level is high, especially this year,” he said, referencing this particular summer, one of the wettest on record for Boone. The water table is so high that water seeps up out of the ground in places where it normally wouldn’t – or shouldn’t. It’s 85 degrees, muggy and muddy, but a break in the clouds finally gives way to the sun.
Six years ago, Bryk traded in his camouflage military uniform for a white T-shirt, jeans, suspenders and straw hat; his combat boots for knee-high rubber waders; and his M-16 rifle for a collection of garden tools.
Bryk joined the United States Marine Corps from his home state of New York in 2003 at the age of 18 and served fours years of duty in a light armored reconnaissance battalion. He deployed to Haiti in 2004 and to Iraq in 2005. As an infantryman, he saw the worst of the Iraq war.
Now, instead of serving in a tight-knit military battalion on the front lines, Bryk is a first-generation farmer who serves his own community, a community that his family relies on for 100 percent of their livelihood.
While Bryk was stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, he met his wife, Jenny, a Boone native. They moved to Boone after Bryk’s service commitment ended, and now they own and manage New Life Farm. Bryk does most of the work himself, while his wife stays busy with their three children, all under the age of 4. Because of his connections at Appalachian State University, he occasionally has an intern, too.
After returning from Iraq, and before meeting his wife, Bryk said he would load up his car on the weekends and drive from the military base toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. Wherever he ended up at dark, that’s where he slept. His goal? Put as many miles between him and the “warrior lifestyle” as possible.
One of his road trips landed him in Deep Gap – in Eustace Conway’s driveway at dusk. Bryk read the famous naturalist’s biography, “The Last American Man,” while on tour in Iraq, and it sparked his interest in the sustainable lifestyle.
Bryk walked up to the famous icon in the middle of a horse-plowed field. It didn’t take long for the formalities and introductions to wear off. With the straightforwardness that he’s known for, Conway quickly gave Bryk a chore: pick up these rocks and toss them over there, he said.
Bryk would periodically show up on Conway’s farm to work and the two built a friendship, and Bryk began to realize something: the more he farmed and worked outside, the more he healed from the psychological wounds of war.
Post traumatic stress disorder
Jenny Bryk walks under the canopy tent where her husband is sitting. She bounces their youngest bleached-blond 16-month-old, Michael, on her hip. She stands for a few minutes and listens to Bryk talk about those wounds.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has made adjusting to civilian life a challenge, Bryk said, and although his physical wounds have healed, the psychological wounds have turned to scars that fade but never go away.
“You still haven’t healed from the war,” his wife said, before sitting in a green plastic lawn chair across from him. “The healing is taking place on the farm and through the community,” she said.
When Bryk finished his service in the military, he wanted to find a profession that was fulfilling and therapeutic. He had to find “a sense of purpose through service.” He gets all that from farming, he said. “This isn’t a pill, but it’s therapeutic.”
Bryk would eventually like to work with other veterans and teach them to use farming to help cope with PTSD, he said.
“I know for a fact that a lot of veterans that get out (of the military) and are like, ‘What do I do with my skill sets, excluding high-stress, violent occupations?’” Bryk said. “Veterans are seeking a renewed sense of identity and purpose – like when they were in the military. Being a farmer has a very distinct identity with a very clear mission: grow food. And people need food.”
The educational foundation: Appalachian State University
After Bryk’s service with the Marines, he decided to earn a bachelor’s degree. Because of his interest in farming and sustainability, he majored in sustainable development at Appalachian and concentrated on agroecology and sustainable agriculture. Around the same time, Bryk and his wife got married, began their family and started farming for their own needs.
“My wife was raised on good wholesome food and wanted to see that her values of wholesome eating were carried on into our family dynamics,” he said. “The most affordable way for us to eat local organic food was for us to grow it ourselves.”
Bryk used his Appalachian education to expand beyond the family garden. Within two years, he achieved his goal of serving his community with fresh, quality food while selling New Life Farm products at the local farmers market and to local restaurants.
New Life Farm abides by USDA organic standards since the land is already certified for organic growing, but Bryk doesn’t market his products as USDA organic. Instead of being accountable to a government agency, he said he wants his customers to keep him accountable.
“I’m going to grow well because the stuff I’m producing feeds my wife, my kids and my community,” Bryk said.
Educating the next generation
For Bryk, the concept of sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations.
“What I hope to get out of this for my children is for them to be down to earth, to have a grip on reality and to know where their food comes from,” Bryk said.
“I’ve brought the next generation into this world, so what am I going to teach them to do? Are they going to be givers or takers? Are they going to be aware that there are two sides of the coin – a system that’s hurting our society or the alternative to that? I want to engulf them in this alternative,” he said.
While Bryk sat reclined in his own green plastic lawn chair, as if on cue, his blonde-haired, blue-eyed 4-year-old daughter, Cora, wanders out of the sun and under the canopy.
“Cora, where does our food come from?” Bryk asked. Being put on the spot made her too shy to answer, but she had no problem answering him when he asked, “What’s your favorite animal?”
“Pigs!” she said.
“What do we get from the pigs?” he asked.
“Bacon!” she said, through a smile.
It took her a few seconds, but then she yelled, “Saushage!” not quite able to pronounce the word, yet.
“That’s the reality of our food,” Bryk said. “Go to your average kid in the city and they have no idea – to them, bacon comes from a plastic package.”
The tractorless farmer
A Marine without a rifle is “useless,” according to the U.S. Marine Creed. Bryk certainly isn’t useless without a tractor. He makes do the best he can without his own, but these days, a farmer without a tractor makes as much sense as a Marine without a rifle.
It’s not uncommon to find Bryk tilling acreage in the moonlight with a 16-inch wide Roto Tiller because of his limited access to a tractor.
“It was backbreaking, inefficient, but the reality is that I have to get stuff planted,” he said. “When you get a window of time to till or plant, you have to get it done because you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.”
Sometimes he borrows a tractor from a friend or neighbor, but being reliant at someone else’s convenience isn’t ideal. Bryk said he has realized that it’s time to buy a tractor, so he’s launching a Kickstarter project to help cover the cost.
Once a Marine, always a farmer
With as much good that farming does for Bryk, it’s still a difficult life. For most of the year, Bryk said he feels like pulling out his hair because of the stress – stress from worrying about too much rain, not enough rain, crop disease or losing livestock to foxes and coyotes. It’s always something, he said.
“Then there are those brief moments where you just forget about all that. You get a yield from something – that’s when it’s satisfying,” Bryk said. “To be a good farmer, you have to stick it out. You have to be able to function in spite of hardship. That’s also something you do in the military.”
The Marine Corps has a saying, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” And although the man is the same, his mission has changed. Instead of “destroying things,” Bryk is cultivating new things – the very antithesis of what the military teaches, he said. And despite the stress associated with farming, “creating something tangible like food, that most people really appreciate, it really brings satisfaction.”
For information about New Life Farm, visit http://www.newlifefarmnc.com.
New Life Farm is one of 25 farms to be featured on the 2013 High Country Farm Tour, held Aug. 3 and 4, which gives consumers the chance to learn about sustainable food and agriculture in their community. The Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture (BRWIA) sponsor the event. For more information, visit http://farmtour.brwia.org/about.html.
(Published feature in the Watauga Democrat, Boone, N.C., and one of two finalist pieces in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence Award region 2 competition for feature writing. Region 2 comprises Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C. )
Click on the photo below to read the whole story.
(Published feature news release for Appalachian Today)
BOONE—The only things behind the door marked “340 RADIO CONTROL” on the third floor of Wey Hall are the skeletal remains of a college radio station studio. The room has seen better days. Not long ago it was an energetic hub for students to nurture their ambitions of something big – bigger than the tiny cubical of a room from which they broadcasted. The rest of the rooms are mostly empty now, except for 35 years worth of rock band decals and stickers in every shape and color layering the doors, a sign that it’s not empty of character or memories.
But radio isn’t dead; it’s alive and well. And 90.5 WASU-FM, Appalachian State University’s student-run radio station, hasn’t gone anywhere … at least not far.
On June 20, across the street in a studio at least three times as large as Wey Hall’s, WASU launched a new era of radio as it broadcast for the first time from the Wayne and Karen Sumner Studio in the new 18,000 square-foot George G. Beasley Media Complex. Beginning fall 2013, new and returning broadcast students will be among the first in the media complex, which houses broadcast studios, classrooms, labs and offices for faculty members.
A generous gift from Appalachian alum George G. Beasley of Naples, Fla., along with state funds and other private donations, have made the media complex a reality.
“George Beasley well knows how a college education can change a person’s life. His truly life transforming gift will enable many students to pursue their dreams of earning college degrees and entering careers in broadcasting,” Chancellor Kenneth Peacock said.
“We were professional before, but we’re moving up to a whole new standard now,” said Christian Morgan, a senior electronic media broadcasting major. “When students come into the broadcasting program, a lot of them have never seen an actual radio or TV station. The fact that the building imitates a professional station gives the students an eye-opening experience,” Morgan said.
From Cramped Quarters to Spacious New Digs
The radio station began in Chapell-Wilson Hall, where it first went on the air in 1972. When the station moved to Wey Hall six years later, it had to form around an existing space. The new media complex, however, is designed for a radio station, said Dan “Vallie” Hill, an industry professional who also oversees WASU as a practitioner in residence.
“The students were pretty cramped over there,” Vallie said, about the Wey Hall location. “There were some disadvantages, but we made it work.”
That “make-it-work” attitude earned the station a “College Radio Woodie Award” in 2012, and the “Shoulda Coulda Woodie Award” in 2011, both from MTV. And in early July, the New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promos Competition named WASU as a finalist in The World’s Best Radio Programs & Promos for 2013. The competition honors radio programming and promotions in all lengths and formats.
The move to the new building won’t change the listener’s experience, Vallie said. Besides the addition of a replica on-air practice studio, the most notable change is that students and faculty have ample space. The number of labs, where students pre-record and assemble on-air packages, have also doubled.
“This building is exactly like what we would see when we graduate and go into the profession that we are looking to start our lives with,” said Nakia Hewitt, a senior electronic media broadcasting major.
The Big Day
As the move-in date for WASU came closer, Vallie, Morgan and Hewitt made preparations by planning an on-air “performance,” as Vallie called it, to document and explain everything to their listeners in real-time as it happened.
“Nakia comes on and makes an announcement about what’s happening. And she introduces Doug Rice, the president of Performance Racing Network and the voice of NASCAR,” Vallie said. “Doug introduces a song and talks about Wey Hall because he graduated from here sometime in the 18th century,” Vallie said, with a laugh. Rice’s voice was the last to broadcast from Wey Hall.
Larry Cornelison, the station’s engineer, coordinated the technical events of the day.
“He’s absolutely terrific; I say all the time, the best engineer I ever worked with,” Vallie said. Doug Brantz, the station’s information technology specialist, also assisted significantly.
Vallie and his students agreed that the most memorable part of the “move” was when Cornelison made the actual switch from the transmitter at Wey Hall to the transmitter at the media complex.
“I was sitting there in the studio, and Larry (Cornelison) was sitting next to me, and I was like ‘We’re going to have to cut off the transmitter across the street and turn the one on here so we can broadcast from this building,’” Hewitt said. “He said, ‘Oh, it’s just a flick of a button from my phone.’ So, he pressed some buttons on his phone and worked the magic that he always does.”
The last song broadcast from Wey Hall was “Start Me Up,” by the Rolling Stones (the first was “Beginnings” by Chicago).
Morgan was the first person to broadcast on air from the new building – sort of. At the time, he was sitting 300 miles away on Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. He used his laptop to remotely log in to, and take control of, the computer at the media complex while looking at the exact same screen that he’d see if he were physically in the studio.
Seagulls flew overhead and waves lapped up the shoreline as Morgan sat in the sand waiting on the phone for Cornelison’s countdown.
“He said ‘three, two, one,’ and I hit go and said, ‘I hope it works…’ and it did,” Morgan said.
The first song broadcast from the media center was “I Will Wait” by Mumford and Sons.
“We switched over our iHeart radio feed at that same time, too, so we were not only on the air for radio, but we were also streaming live,” Morgan said.
Vallie, Morgan and Hewitt all laughed and said there was no backup plan, but that it “went off without a hitch.”
“The back-up plan was try it again if it didn’t work the first time,” Vallie said.
The Future is Now
“I feel honored to have been at the station during this big time. Right now it doesn’t seem like it’s such a big deal, but in the future, students in this building are going to have been here for a while, and I’ll come back and tell them ‘back in my day…’” Hewit said. “We’re going to love it and treat it with so much respect.”
WASU has come a long way from its beginnings in 1972 when a disc jockey manually chose and played music from vinyl records and eight-track tapes, all state-of-the-art technology at the time. Now, state-of-the-art means moving an entire radio station from one location to the next is as easy as a flick of a button on a smartphone; state-of-the-art means that a DJ can fill the airwaves with music in digital format from a computer – sitting in the sand, 300 miles away.
The picture frame windows that stretch from one side of each studio to the other in the George G. Beasley Media Complex still bear the manufacturer’s stickers, but there are no traces of band stickers anywhere – yet. That’s something that the next generations of broadcast students will have to take care of. It’s probably time to start a new sticker collection.
For more information about 90.5 WASU-FM, visit http://www.wasuradio.com.
Kate Durham | Photographer. Writer. Artist.
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