Kansas Farmer Logo

Helping veterans heal, one beehive at a time

Teaching beekeeping is one sweet way to help veterans transition to civilian life.

Jennifer M. Latzke, Editor

May 29, 2024

8 Min Read
bottle of Valor Honey
VALOR HONEY: Valor Honey is produced and bottled by veterans, with 100% of the sales going to further veteran beekeeping training efforts. It’s sold at 385 Hy-Vee grocery stores and online at valorhoney.org.Photos by Jennifer M. Latzke

Not all wounds of war can be seen. Some battle scars run much, much deeper.

“It’s not fully understood or appreciated by folks, but when you’ve been in some serious situations in combat, it’s not just something that affects your mind, or your physical being — it affects your soul. It’s soul-deep,” says Gary LaGrange. Healing those wounds is his mission and that of the program he founded, Valor Honey.

LaGrange, a U.S. Army colonel, may be retired from a 30-year career, but this Vietnam veteran and former garrison commander at Fort Riley, Kan., has made it his personal mission to assist returning servicemembers in transitioning back to civilian life and healing those wounds.

Gary LaGrange holds a frame from one of the hives of bees located at the Kansas State University Agronomy Farm

And he’s using honeybees to help.

Valor Honey's mission

LaGrange, who prefers folks “just call me Gary,” says that post-9/11, the U.S. has more than 1.5 million veterans; and according to the Department of Commerce, more than 40% of veterans interviewed wanted to get into some sort of agricultural career after the military. Considering that the number of farmers continues to decline, it makes sense to help them find their agricultural specialty. And beekeeping is one entry point that is affordable and takes a small land footprint.

Back in 2012, LaGrange’s daughter shared with him another benefit to helping veterans find their farming calling. As a clinical psychologist specializing in brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, she was working at Fort Riley with clients using farming and gardening projects as therapy. And she was seeing remarkable results in her clients. This led LaGrange to develop a pilot program to train veterans and those transitioning out of the military in beekeeping.

“That first year, we started with about 24 beehives and eight soldiers from Fort Riley and six veterans as a trial,” LaGrange says. All of them had PTSD. And the outcome was so significant, LaGrange says, the program started to grow into today’s Valor Honey, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity that trains veterans, active-duty members and military family members in beekeeping as not only a career path, but also a way to heal.

 Valor Honey beehive is abuzz with bees

Today, Valor Honey has about 250 beehives and a packing facility at its farm just south of Manhattan, and a teaching space at the Kansas State University Agronomy Education Center on the agronomy farm north of campus — with hives as well. Honey with the Valor Honey label can be purchased online or at area retail outlets, including 385 Hy-Vee grocery stores, with 100% of the sales going back to Valor Honey’s educational efforts. The program relies solely on monetary or in-kind donations, as well as the honey sales. The honey is also sold online at the valorhoney.org website.


There are three different entry points for clients or students to come to Valor Honey, LaGrange says.

First, the organization works with counselors at Fort Riley’s Soldier Recovery Unit at Irwin Army Hospital to recommend soldiers to Valor Honey who are healing or working to transition to civilian life.

Some seek the program for career education, others are looking for it as a form of therapy, LaGrange says. “We tailor a program to them,” he says. “Some will go back to their units, some will medically retire — so we tailor their program to what they need.”

Other veterans and active-duty members will come to Valor Honey on their own, he says. The program does not charge clients or students for the service, he adds, but they are expected to volunteer in beekeeping internships with Valor Honey.

Gary LaGrange and Iudrees Khalim at Valor Honey

The third route is through a new entomology course offered at Kansas State University, ENTOM 485 “Special Topics: Intro to Beekeeping,” co-taught by LaGrange and Brian McCornack, head of the Department of Entomology. This fully accredited course at K-State was first taught in the spring semester of 2024, and it qualifies for VA vocational rehabilitation benefits and GI Bill funds. The university plans to add an advanced course, a commercial course and a research-focused Masters of Beekeeping course in the future, LaGrange says.

Therapeutic buzz

The research into beekeeping’s therapeutic powers is ongoing, LaGrange says. But the anecdotal evidence of its power is overwhelming. After three months of working with the bees through Valor Honey’s training, LaGrange says clients or students have fewer suicidal ideations, fewer outbursts and fewer incarcerations.

“The thoughts [of suicide] go away,” he says. “We get that feedback from counselors, from the individuals themselves and from our own observations. They’re able to reintegrate into society and return to their families and become productive citizens. And they’re happy.”

There’s an overwhelming need for mental health interventions like the Valor Honey project. LaGrange says there is a conservative estimate that 35% of all veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will return home with some behavioral condition. And it affects not just those who served in U.S. armed forces, but their allies on the ground as well.

This year, Valor Honey received a grant to train 15 Afghan Allies — former Afghanistan contractors who served alongside U.S. troops and who’ve resettled in the Manhattan area. Some, like Iudrees Khalim, have experience keeping bees in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Khalim worked in the legal field for the international forces and U.S. Army in Afghanistan. His family is one of many who had to leave their home country and resettle in the U.S. for their safety.

Bees at hive

Khalim works with LaGrange to translate beekeeping lessons to his fellow refugees, and says that beekeeping as a form of farming is first an avenue for financial security for their families. But it also provides them comfort.

“We’re still under a transition period, with lots of ups and downs in our lives,” he says. “We didn’t just wake up in the morning and decide to come to the U.S.” The turmoil of resettling was tough on him and his family — but the bees, he says, provide peace.

“When we work with the bees, we get a kind of internal peace, because we are working with nature,” he says.

LaGrange says it’s the calm and methodical nature of beekeeping that helps. The ability to have a career that provides for a family is another benefit. But also, for veterans who’ve been through the chaos and trauma of battle, beekeeping is an act of creation, not destruction.

“You’re working with something that’s producing life, and a product at the end,” he says. And that heals all the way to the soul.

The 988 Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as suicide prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. For veterans, dial 988 and press 1.

Education and research support

There is a need for more education and research for beekeepers, LaGrange says. In the near future, Valor Honey, in cooperation with K-State and the American Honey Producers Association, will create the American Beekeeping and Honey Institute in Manhattan, featuring training, research, certification and communication about honey and beekeeping.

There is support for this effort at both the local and federal levels.

On May 22, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, introduced the Colonel Gary LaGrange AgVets Act of 2024. This act would codify and expand the pilot Food and Agriculture Resilience Program for Military Veterans (the AgVets Program) that was in the FY2017 Agriculture Appropriations Act.

The AgVets Program has awarded project grants in more than 30 states and the District of Columbia since 2018, offering thousands of transitioning veterans opportunities in agriculture.

The LaGrange AgVets Act of 2024 would build on the pilot by:

  • Providing training and classroom education resources for veterans exploring careers in production agriculture, farm and ranch business operations, and management

  • Developing or identifying curricula that veteran farmers and ranchers can adopt to manage their enterprises

  • Developing and implementing education, workshops, tours and instructor-supervised field experiences

  • Supporting additional activities identified by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture that would increase the number of veterans pursuing careers and skills development in agriculture.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like