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Military Veterans: the Next Generation of Organic Farmers

: A veteran and participant of the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program handles living basil at an organic hydroponic farm, which grows plants in water as opposed to soil. The program, started by decorated Marine sergeant Colin Archipley, passes on agricultural knowledge to veterans to not only provide healing through farming but also to support them in starting their own agricultural enterprises.

: A veteran and participant of the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program handles living basil at an organic hydroponic farm, which grows plants in water as opposed to soil. The program, started by decorated Marine sergeant Colin Archipley, passes on agricultural knowledge to veterans to not only provide healing through farming but also to support them in starting their own agricultural enterprises.

Compost tea (a mixture of recycled organic matter soaked in water), hydroponic living basil, and organic certification are terms that, at first glance, may not have much of a connection to military veterans. Colin Archipley, a decorated Marine sergeant, and his wife Karen however saw the combination as a win-win when they founded the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program outside San Diego, California.

Many veterans who have served our country have challenges transitioning to civilian life and struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and high unemployment rates.  After three tours in Iraq, Colin found his solace working on the Archipley’s newly-purchased, neglected avocado farm, which sat on 3 acres outside of Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base.

When the Archipleys received their first water bill, they determined their farm needed to be more sustainable. They decided to move to a water-efficient hydroponic system (roots placed in nutrient-rich water instead of soil) that reduces water use by up to 90%. They received a loan from the USDA Farm Service Administration to build a larger greenhouse, tripling their production.

They also were certified organic by California-based CCOF Certification Services (accredited and overseen by the USDA National Organic Program, part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service) and used their hydroponic system to grow organic basil, tomatoes, and variety of greens and other herbs. Produce is delivered as living plants (with roots still attached) to local farmers markets and stores, which saves water and retains freshness.

Colin wanted to help other veterans heal their wounds through organic farming—and to use their acquired skills to start agricultural businesses of their own. The VSAT program has partnered with local community and state colleges to offer veterans an intensive six-week course to learn how to grow hydroponic crops from seed to market. Participants then take an exam and present their business plan to potential investors, produce buyers, and human resources personnel. At the end of the course, participants have a solid business plan and the know-how to start their own similar operation.

NOP Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy and co-founder of the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program, Karen Archipley, tour through the Archipleys’ organic basil garden.  The garden moved to a hydroponic system when they determined the farm needed to be more sustainable. The switch helped reduce water use by up to 90%, and a loan from the USDA Farm Service Administration helped build a larger greenhouse to triple production.

NOP Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy and co-founder of the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program, Karen Archipley, tour through the Archipleys’ organic basil garden. The garden moved to a hydroponic system when they determined the farm needed to be more sustainable. The switch helped reduce water use by up to 90%, and a loan from the USDA Farm Service Administration helped build a larger greenhouse to triple production.

I was able to attend the business plan presentations and graduation of a recent VSAT class, and it was very inspiring to see what the Archipleys have done–both how they have helped fellow combat veterans transition to civilian life and that they saw organic agriculture as part of that path.

The Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training Program has helped over 100 military veterans transition to the civilian work force with other locations on the horizon. One memorable graduate is Mike Hanes, a decorated veteran. He went from being homeless and unable to re-engage in civilian life to creating his own organic hot sauce, DANG!!!, which is now for sale at grocery stores around the country.

Based on the last agricultural census, the average American farmer is 57 years of age, and nearly 30 percent of American farmers are over the age of 65. Nearly 45 percent of the military come from a rural background, and USDA is pushing for 100,000 new farmers. We applaud the Archipleys for continuing to serve their country by supporting our heroes and helping to build the next generation of organic farmers.

27 Responses to “Military Veterans: the Next Generation of Organic Farmers”

  1. Steve says:

    I love this story. What is the product name for the organic hot sauce?

  2. Elizabeth Martin says:

    I am keenly interested in this project and want to receive more information. I believe that a similar training program would be extremely beneficial for military veterans returning to Northeast Georgia. Retired from education and social service, I have been exploring for over a year the resources available to develop a coordinated educational, employment, and affordable housing program for veterans returning to this rural area. As a former Vocational Rehabilitation counselor, I am especially interested in facilitating the employment of veterans with disabilities.

    Habersham County is home to North Georgia Technical College, Clarkesville, founded over 100 years ago to educate the children of North Georgia farmers. NGTC has a strong horticultural program and many other training programs as well. The college also has a dormitory that accommodates students unable to commute because of distance.

    The University of Georgia, with its extensive agricultural resources, is less than hour’s drive south of Clarkesville. Veterans’ Administration hospitals in Atlanta and Augusta serve our returning veterans. The dearth of employment opportunities in the mountains of northeast Georgia causes many young people to move to cities. I believe, however, that returning veterans are likely to be happier and ultimately more successful in their familiar home environment.

    As the founding President of Habersham Families Helping Families, Inc., I am dedicated to finding ways to assist individuals and families in acquiring the resources to meet their needs. A group of educators and other interested individuals united eight years ago to form this 501(c)3 community organization, initially known as Habersham Family Resource Cooperative, Inc. We have changed the organization’s name to better express its spirit, but its mission remains the same.

    This organization has received grants from the North Georgia Community Foundation, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia to sponsored educational programs ranging from early childhood through adult education. During the Great Recession, HFHF opened a Food Pantry affiliated with the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia and a Thrift Store that supports the Food Pantry. Both of these enterprises serve an increasing number of local families, individuals with disabilities, and senior citizens.

    HFHF has worked closely with North Georgia Technical College; Habersham County Schools; Ninth District Opportunity; ACE, Inc. (Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs, formerly Appalachian Community Enterprise); local businesses, churches, and United Way organizations serving communities in the mountains of northeast Georgia. We want to welcome home our returning veterans with opportunities for education, employment, affordable housing, and a promising future. We also want to invite other veterans to settle in this beautiful area and make it their home.

    The tradition of military service is deeply ingrained in the life and culture of Georgia. In addition to Georgia’s native sons and daughters, hundreds of thousands of veterans from other states have received training at military bases throughout Georgia. Veterans are respected and welcomed here. Furthermore, agriculture has long been the backbone of Georgia’s economy. I consider it eminently fitting that Georgia should serve as the next location for a Veterans’ Sustainable Agriculture Training Program.

    I propose that the USDA locate its next Veterans’ Sustainable Agriculture Training Program in Habersham County in collaboration with North Georgia Technical College and the University of Georgia. I also propose that the training program be developed in conjunction with the USDA Mutual Self-Help Housing Program in order to enable returning veterans to provide themselves and their families with affordable housing. I am confident that the Habersham County Commission, the Habersham Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Habersham County, and local non-profit organizations would endorse and support this effort.

  3. Debra Guenther says:

    This is an awesome program all the way you look at it. Helps veterans and produce the best kinds of food for people to eat. Win, win situation.

  4. Kathi Beratan says:

    Is there any data on the number of active-duty military and/or veterans who are interested in getting into agriculture-related careers? A group of partner organizations has tried to get a program like this started in SE NC, but we’ve had trouble getting needed funding; we’ve been told by more than one potential funding agency / organization that the program sounds great, but that they are skeptical that there are very many current or former military personnel who would be interested in this type of thing. As far as I’ve been able to find, no one has collected data that would support the anecdotal evidence of interest.

    Is this information that the USDA would be interested in seeing? It would be straightforward for one of our University partners to do such a study, if a small amount of funding could be found for it.

  5. Chris Downs says:

    This is the program that I would have loved to be a part of when I got out of the service. I had moved to a very remote area of Washington state and got back to the peace and enjoyment of growing things while serving others to eat healthy and heal my social skills.

    His Farm.org is what I am working on now, and I am looking to help returning Veterans to reconnect with being able to enjoy serving and growing in life. To change again from being isolated from a community, to return to a life of service and positive lifestyle. That change back took me longer than I had expected as I was challenged with being unsure of the safety of my surroundings. Working with animals and farming and gardening was the start of becoming me again. Bootcamp changed all of us, I learned a lot of new skills while in the service, and probably one of the best lessons is the ability to overcome and see ways to make things work. The ability to see what is available, rather than what we did not have.

    Veterans are a great asset for any company, but even a better asset for themselves. We have the ability to make a Huge difference in this country. As our current farmers and Ranchers are aging, there is a great opportunity for joint ventures with those farmers who would like to stay in their homes as long as possible until it is time to travel home. Look for opportunities to help others, because together we can grow and make a difference. We are all connected together. It is great to see the government looking to help Veterans truly build a life of their dreams that you have earned through your service.

  6. Susan Dunn says:

    This is great, how do I post it to my Facebook page???

  7. Kathy Barnhardt says:

    This is a fantastic story and Minnesota could benefit greatly from such a program.

  8. Pat Saville says:

    I am a big believer in Archi’s Acres VSAT Program, and I’m
    happy to learn that you have something similar going in
    Georgia!

  9. MarkliAnn Johnston says:

    I am going to OSU, getting my BS in Ag Sciences, with Minors in Soil Science and Horticulture, so I can do the same for Oregon vets. Every state in this country should have at least one program like this. I learned of the Archipley’s two years ago. I was inspired enough to go back to school and get my degree in order to be a first-time farmer and pass along the knowledge to those soldiers, sailors, airmen, & Marines who have served our country.

  10. Rebecca [USDA Moderator] says:

    Thanks for your question, Steve. The organic hot sauce is called “DANG!!!”

  11. j. williams says:

    Sounds like a really good initiative. A step in the right direction that is focused on veterans who often are jsut used for publicity. Program needs to be expanded to include traditional farming; etc. land based, livestock and poultry. Lets see where it goes in an its efforts to include not just young urban kids who want to make a fast dollar?

  12. Paul Salon says:

    What are you using as an organic soluble fertilizer? Is it a commercially available product?

  13. Paleo Republic says:

    This! Utterly brilliant to get wonderful people back on their feet as well as helping to save the planet with real food. Seriously, way to think outside the box. I look forward to other states following suit. Approve.

  14. Aine says:

    Wish I could do this in Colorado Springs.

  15. Rebecca [USDA Moderator] says:

    @Kathi. Thanks so much for your interest in our blog about veterans and farming. There are a couple of government departments that collect the type of data you might be looking for: Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor.

    Veterans Affairs (va.gov) is probably the department most closely looking at this specific type of data collection. They recently published a report from a longitudinal study they did on the vocational rehabilitation & employment of U.S. veterans. It is published it on their website at: http://www.vba.va.gov/bln/vre/doc/2010_longstdy.pdf. In their study, they accounted for agricultural training, farm cooperative work, etc, but it is just one of many areas of interest accounted for in their survey. It may be worth reaching out to them to see if there are other studies or reports from previous years.

    The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov) also has online data sources that allow you to delve into the full employment picture of the U.S. There are several tables of data that specifically address veterans in the workforce, and here is a link to just one of the items that looks at veterans and gives a breakdown of the industry they work in: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/vet.t05.htm. You may be able to find even more detail on their site or by contacting them directly as well.

    By combining these two sets, you can start to get an idea of the percentage interested in pursuing agricultural training/education, and the percentage currently employed in the agricultural industry. Hopefully these starting points will be helpful to you as you try to establish a program in your state.

  16. Len Eichler says:

    There is a Veterans Business Outreach Center in your area that can assist with developing a business plan and working with local lenders. To find the VBOC in your area go to http://www.sba.gov.

  17. Dennis says:

    We have a similar program here at Delaware Valley College and the Rodale institute for Veterans, our Veteran Organic Farming Program.www.delval.edu/vofp

  18. Dr U V Babu says:

    Excellent initiative by USDA. Infact, the organic cultivation by hydroponic system is more authentic than herbs cultivated in virgin lands. Is hydroponic is allowed for USDA/NOP organic certification. If my understanding is correct, herb cultivation by hydroponic system can be eligible for organic certification as per USDA/NOP guidelines. Pl help me to know better.

  19. Norm says:

    This a gift to both struggling vets, their families, surrounding communities and has potential to introduce more organic food into our food chain! Win-Win-Win! BTW Oregon State University is very into agriculture… good school to tap into.

  20. Gururaj Chalageri says:

    This is fantastic development regarding organic certification for Hydroponic cultivated plants. if we use certified media and Nutrition USDA /NOP will accept this system for certification? I look forward its clarification.

  21. Kit says:

    I love this story and the concept, I worked with Homeless veterans in Boston and I am alway in awe. Bravo for restructuring ideas and assisting while incorperating an outlet for these brave souls to provide for themselves and develop business to sustain them. Awesome!

  22. Cathy Greeson says:

    I am working on putting together an Outreach Grant to service the veterans that are farmer or interested in becoming a farmer in our area. I would like to partner with local business’s or organizations that would like to also get involved. We service a 14 county area. If you know of anyone that can possibly benefit from this program, please contact me.

  23. Claude Aina says:

    This is a great program. It is perfect for my situation. I am a disabled veteran, 67 years old. I have not worked for a while. I would like to learn how to do this, and also help other veterans in my neighborhood. If Cathy Greeson sees this message please respond.

  24. Thad Kelhofer says:

    I think this is a great program, I’m a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom 2007-2008. I would love to have my own business. I know this is a USDA site but, where can i explore all my options do y’all know of any links? Thanks again this looks like a great program.

  25. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    Thad, thanks for your service! There are a number of websites that will help you get started. The http://www.start2farm.gov website has some great info. We recommend visiting the Organic Resource Page if you are interested in organic farming. Our outreach website also has information for Veterans. Be sure to check out the Farmer Veteran Coalition as well. Best of luck!

  26. Fred Minamyer says:

    This is a great idea! I am a combat veteran with TBI and PTSD and would love to be involved in a program like this as I am already in the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program. I recently moved into a rural area on 6 acres with dreams of producing my own crops. To me growing anything is therapuetic and is a worthy endevor. The only aggressive thing a veteran has to worry about in farming is weeds! University of MI Agricultureal and Horticulture Programs …are you listening? I could spend the rest of my life doing nothing else but farming/gardening and be happy!

  27. Edward Ward says:

    This sounds fantastic,as I always wanted to spend my last days growing grapes,and maybe some self-sustaining hydroponics with possibly a catfish tank to provide fish-poo for the plants. However,I am 50% service-connected disabled for a back injury. Also,I am living on social security because of an extreme difficulty staying awake. There is also a memory problem- as I write things down but somehow misplace my notes. I can concentrate on complex tasks to completion, if I’m not interrupted. Is there any possibility there for me, or is this just another stupid pipe dream of mine? Even with my certificate from the V.A. no bank will even give me a home loan, so I’m living in a trailer park in a trailer manufactured in 1966, and the roof is caving in. I put plastic buckets in the window sills to catch the rain running through the wall and window frame. Please! Somebody tell this old Marine which direction to charge next,and no I”ve already been through hell. Thanks.

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