Based on the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, the average American farmer is 57 years old, and nearly 30% of American farmers are over the age of 65. To combat the USDA’s need for 100,000 farmers, Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) courses have been in session throughout 2012 to teach war vets how to be a part of a new generation of sustainable crop growers. In six weeks, VSAT covers organic farming from seed to market, including greenhouse production, irrigation maintenance and farm management skills. When Iraq and Afghanistan-deployed Mike Hanes completed the course in February 2011, he went from being homeless and unable to re-engage in civilian life to creating a raw, organic hot sauce so good Whole Foods Market decided to put it on their shelves.
“It has three super foods in there,” Hanes said. “It has maca, spirulina and mesquite.”
VSAT was founded in 2007 by Colin Archipley, a decorated Marine sergeant who served three tours in Iraq, and his wife Karen. When Colin returned home to southern California, he found solace working on his new, fixer-upper avocado farm, named Archi’s Acres.
Archipley recalled, “Here you were, living in a ditch, getting shot at and making all these sacrifices and people here didn’t even know anything about it. It brought a lot of anger, a lot of frustration. I had to find an outlet, something I could engage in that was bigger than myself.”
But when Archi’s Acres received its first higher-than-expected $845 water bill, the Archipleys decided their farm needed a sustainable makeover. They found an economic and environmental solution via the hydroponic method (roots placed in nutrient-rich water instead of soil), which reduces water use by up to 90%. Hydroponics also allow plants to grow very efficiently with little impact on natural resources, far fewer pests and diseases than plants grown in soil, and no threat of contamination to soil or groundwater from nitrates, or other agricultural runoff waste common with even organic growers.
With help from a USDA Farm Service Administration loan, Colin and Karen bought a larger greenhouse and began growing basil, tomatoes, lettuce, chard, kale, mint, tomatoes, cilantro and parsley, all certified organic by California CCOF Certification Services (accredited and overseen by the USDA National Organic Program). With his sustainable operations in place, Colin felt a calling to share organic farming with fellow veterans. VSAT was born, and to date, the program has helped over 100 military veterans grow healthy food.
“The transition is very difficult for a lot of us getting out of the military,” Hanes added. “This VSAT six-week program is the only transitional body from the military I have ever seen…This program represents a fine balance of technicalities and hands on training in a comfortable, low-stress environment. The training is crucial in creating that solid foundation which is needed for a smooth transition into farming and could save years of trial and error for any person.”