Farming gives her life back

Biviano finds solace among cows on New York dairy

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As a high school graduate in 2008, Jamie Biviano planned to make a career of her military service in the U.S. Air Force. However, fate dealt her a cruel hand, bringing those dreams to a crashing end. Picking herself up from the depths of rock bottom, Biviano said she found solace in a dairy barn.

In 2012, Biviano was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan, where she worked as part of the security force at the base. Rather than that becoming her life’s work, she found herself medically retired in 2014. 

Then, Biviano found herself on Craig Dennis’ 50-cow dairy farm near Pompey.

“Craig doesn’t realize he was saving my life, but he did,” Biviano said. “Being on the farm, with the cows, it really saved me. He taught me these cows have so much to give us, and he was right.”

Recovering from the trauma of her deployment — trauma she did not even realize she had endured when she left Afghanistan — took Biviano to the lowest points of her life.

“I didn’t see combat in the sense that I was actively pulling a trigger on anyone or they were on me,” Biviano said. “But I saw enough things that definitely hurt my soul. You see so much.”

Biviano was also burdened with becoming a whistleblower to a sexual assault of which she had become aware.

“That was traumatizing, knowing so many women overseas who had faced that,” Biviano said. “It was traumatizing to tell on people I knew and cared about who had done this, but they took part in this horrible thing. It put me in a tough position. I had a lot of guilt too.”

After returning from deployment in 2012, Biviano was diagnosed with Transverse myelitis. The rare, acquired focal inflammatory disorder that manifests as lesions on the spinal cord left her paralyzed for some time.

“I had been back home for about a week and started feeling this strange sensation in my torso, kind of a burning, almost like when your foot falls asleep,” Biviano said. “It started as a small patch in my back and spread from my armpits all the way down and got to the point where I couldn’t walk.”

Biviano was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury, all stemming from her experiences in Afghanistan.

As she began to physically recover, Biviano’s mental health continued to deteriorate.

“I was able to walk again after about a month on steroid drips, but the physical ailments were nothing compared to the mental struggles,” Biviano said. “The depression grew worse. I struggled with the spiritual stuff. I got to the point where I was suicidal. I was out of my mind, on a lot of medications.”

Biviano asked to receive mental health treatment at a Veterans Health Administration hospital. As she was weaned off medications to alleviate her symptoms, it was her sister who pressed her to begin working at Dennis’ farm.

“I thought she was the crazy one,” Biviano said. “I couldn’t get out of the house let alone go and hang out with cows. I grew up in the city. I had zero farm background.”

At the farm, Biviano was first struck by the serene power of her new surroundings. Slowly, she began to heal, physically, mentally and spiritually.

“Craig was so patient and so grateful for me to be there,” Biviano said. “He gave me so many lessons I could have never learned any other place. That changed my life — that somebody needed me, that I had a purpose, a reason to live again.”

Biviano’s farm experiences began with simple chores like pushing up feed and scraping floors, and then moving into milking and feeding calves.

“It was just little pieces here and there, and I learned what the animals and the farm needed,” Biviano said. “It felt very natural, like a well-oiled machine, a routine that I could fall back into.”

As the fresh air and the camaraderie of the animals began to heal her soul, Biviano grew healthier, eventually stopping all medications.

“I felt so much better, and I had so much energy,” Biviano said. “It was this natural, therapeutic thing that happened to me. I found a version of me that I never even knew existed.”

Biviano found comfort in the routine she settled into. She became proficient as a herdsperson, working there for more than seven years.

Last spring, when Dennis made the decision to sell his cows, Biviano faced uncertainty again.

“I was heartbroken,” Biviano said. “I loved them so much. They were my ladies. I pretended to be OK, but I was scared what would happen. Would I end up being afraid to leave the house again? I had so much knowledge, so much I have gained from this. I decided to do something with it to give back.”

Biviano took advantage of her military benefits to go back to school with the goal of eventual admission into veterinary school. With her first semester as a full-time student behind her, Biviano will resume classes at the end of January.

During semester break, Biviano turned to social media in search of experiences to occupy her time, asking fellow dairy farmers for the opportunity to visit their farms.

“I was blown away,” Biviano said. “There were hundreds that responded, from those who were in desperate need of help to those who said, ‘Hey, let me help you.’”

Biviano spent much of her mid-term break helping at a small farm in Massachusetts that is involved with direct marketing.

“I had hoped to visit several farms over the course of my break, but the weather thwarted those plants,” Biviano said.

She hopes to plan further travels this summer.

“I like this idea, and it seems like something I can probably get the hang of,” Biviano said. “There was a lot of response from farmers in Wisconsin, and I would like to go there this summer.”

The trajectory of Biviano’s life was not expected and was certainly not easy, but Biviano said she realizes those experiences have brought her to exactly the place she needs to be.

“When the sun rises on the farm, it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life,” she said. “The only other place I had ever seen that raw land was in Afghanistan. I went from feeling that there was no God to believing there had to be something greater than my own understanding, because this had to be created by something.”

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