Archi’s Acres Offers Sustainable Agriculture Opps for Veterans
April 15, 2011 | Jeremy Ogul
Before returning from his final tour in 2006, he and his wife, Karen, started working on rehabilitating a three-acre avocado farm they purchased just north of San Diego, which they christened Archi’s Acres. When the first month’s water bill came, though, they were shocked. It was $845.
“That’s the moment we became a sustainable farm,” Colin said. With water rates between $1200 and $1300 per acre-foot in that part of San Diego County, the Archipleys decided they needed to adopt agricultural methods that used less water.
They settled on bio-hydroponics, which they describe as the production of organic plants without soil within controlled environments. Hydroponics involves the direct application of water and nutrients to a plant’s roots. Because the water does not filter through soil, it is far more water-efficient than traditional agriculture. The Archipleys estimate that they use 85 to 90 percent less water than with traditional methods.
As the Archipleys worked to redevelop the farm, they watched with sadness as many of the soldiers Colin served with struggled to readjust to civilian life and find work.
“The people he’d served with had started going back into the military — not because they’d wanted to, but because they couldn’t feed themselves,” Karen said. “So we thought, what if we actually trained people to do what we do?”
So they created the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program to offer combat veterans instruction in sustainable agriculture practices as well as a path to employment opportunities in a high growth potential industry.
During a six-month pilot program, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs paid wages to 15 veteran students. After the pilot program ended, the Archipleys established a partnership with MiraCosta College to offer a full-time (40 hours per week), six-week VSAT “Full Impact Ag Business Introduction” program to active duty military, veterans, and the general public.
The program teaches students about greenhouse production, hydroponics, irrigation maintenance, farmer’s market management and farm management principles. Beyond the training, the program gives veterans a chance to readjust to civilian life.
“It’s difficult for a lot of guys to go from a high-intensity environment where you’re doing everything as a cohesive unit in a chaotic environment,” Colin said. “When you come back to the civilian world, it’s hard to understand your sense of purpose.”
In order to graduate from the program, students must develop and present an agricultural business plan. According to Colin, “You see them change, and their attitude change as you see their business plan starting to take shape.” A panel that includes local investors and bankers as well as a representative from Whole Foods Market grades the final business plans.
Archi’s Acres works with the California Small Business Development Center and the USDA’s Farm Service Agency to guide the students as they turn their plans into reality. Instructor Steve Burch teaches students everything they need to know to become certified agricultural irrigation specialists.
Most graduates of the VSAT program go on to be self-employed, Karen said. One graduate and his wife recently finished their greenhouse in Gilroy, Calif. and are adding a grass-fed cattle operation to their farm. Another veteran graduate is currently working with an investor to start a raw organic hot sauce company.
Archi’s Acres also connects its students with a network of alumni, ag organizations and businesses, including John Deere, Toro, Whole Foods Market, the Irrigation Association and AgraTech Greenhouse Manufacturing. “We have created a network that these veterans come into so that when they do decide the direction they want to go, they have everything they need to make their business a successful one,” Karen said.
The military can help active duty personnel pay for the program, which costs $4500. Veterans can apply for financial assistance through the Toby Stinson Memorial Award (http://www.freedomisnotfree.com) or the Boeing Employee Community Fund (http://www.veterangreenjobs.com).
The next two courses begin on April 25 and June 13.