Field training: Making the shift from combat to crops
Nov./Dec. 2009 California Country magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Fred Greaves
Archi's Acres uses hydroponic technology to produce the farm's crops and provide a rehabilitation program for military veterans.
Former U.S. Marine Colin Archipley founded Archi's Acres in San Diego County to help military veterans make the sometimes difficult transition from active duty to civilian life.
The fragrance of sweet basil greets former U.S. Marine Sgt. Colin Archipley as he begins his workday on a rolling hillside in San Diego County. Stepping into the greenhouse on his small farm near Valley Center, Archipley joins other military veterans already busy harvesting the fresh herbs bound for farmers markets and select natural foods stores in the area.
As the men work, there's an air of orderliness and discipline, everyone with a task to do and tools at the ready. Outside, a man hunkers among the heirloom tomatoes, handpicking the ripest for the day's deliveries as the fruit on the nearby avocado trees continues to mature.
Archi's Acres is part organic farm, part military veterans rehabilitation program. It's a model for innovative food production and a testament to the healing power of hard work, a shared purpose and wholesome food.
Archipley and his team use hydroponic technology to produce the farm's crops—primarily organic basil and a variety of lettuces, with chard and kale grown between seasons. These crops are grown without soil in a nutrient-rich "compost tea" that Archipley brews and delivers to the plants through computerized drip lines. The result is high-quality produce using very little water or land.
After helping take the city of Haditha in Iraq, Marine Sgt. Colin Archipley, at top, third from left, says his platoon moved on to secure the surrounding area. Today, Archipley puts his energy into farming and teaching. (Photo courtesy of Colin Archipley.)
Settling back in the cozy office he shares with his wife, Karen, Archipley explained how a combat Marine with three tours of duty in Iraq ended up founding a farm: "When I got back from Iraq the last time, I still had four months left on my commitment to the Marines.
"I was spending time at home, among the avocado trees, and decided I wasn't going to re-enlist. The trees produced a little income and it seemed fundamental to keep that going. Then it occurred to me I could make a living out of it.
"Feeding people is larger than self and that appealed to me," said Archipley, who grew up in urban California. "At the same time, I didn't want to interact with a lot of people, in the sense of offering them customer service. I like the physical work on the farm, but didn't know a lot about growing crops."
The Archipleys' original plan after Colin completed his military service was to be a husband-wife team helping with real estate sales and loans. The couple envisioned working together in their new home office, puttering around the farm.
"But when Colin got back here and started working the farm, that's when everything changed," Karen Archipley said. "He started working to revive the avocado trees and researching all the details of organic growing and certification.
Vet Cory Pollard helps Colin Archipley pack tomatoes for market.
"When he got our water bill, he couldn't believe the cost and began trying to figure out ways to cut water use," she said. "This has always been an organic farm, but then we needed to prove it. We had to defend our organic status. That's the kind of challenge Colin understands from his years in the Marines."
Archipley began researching various farming practices and growing techniques. That led to days of hard work putting the little farm back in order, tinkering and building, and nights of studying agricultural systems. Karen Archipley took on the marketing and promotion duties.
With plans for a second greenhouse and demand increasing for their produce at farmers markets, and the landing of a few regular commercial accounts, the couple was stretched and needed to add workers. At the same time they recognized the therapeutic value of hard physical work for those going through a transition to civilian life, as Archipley had.
One night Archipley attended a local veterans meeting and told the group about how beneficial he found farm work. A vocational rehabilitation counselor overheard him and got his business card.
A few phone calls and meetings later, Archipley began working with the Veterans Administration to create the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program.
The program's early success has attracted interest from other VA facilities and officials say it's definitely going to be retained for the potential benefit to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The first veterans through the program have been older than the typical Iraq and Afghanistan vets, but the program already has its own success stories.
Farm supervisor and vet Thomas Sheets harvests basil grown using hydroponic technology.
One of the first men to participate in the program was Thomas Sheets, a homeless Desert Storm veteran who now is employed as a supervisor by Archipley and lives in a mobile home on the farm.
A former U.S. Navy Search and Rescue crewman, Sheets said that when he was coming out of the VA counseling program he was looking for something peaceful in the way of work. In addition to that, the program offered training in farm management, hydroponic growing, grove management and greenhouse maintenance, as well as how to market farm products.
"I was offered an opportunity to come up here and was immediately intrigued by the innovative technology," Sheets said. "At first all I brought with me was labor and enthusiasm. Over time, I've been able to use my life skills from construction and my knowledge of computers to help solve problems on the farm.
"Now I feel like I play a valuable role here. I came without knowing anything about farming, but really like what I do today."
Sheets said he also likes to see how word of the transition program at Archi's Acres is growing and added, "I want to be a part of that, too. For someone who is fragile, disoriented or stressed out, this is a great place to be."
Jeff Seltzer of Oceanside, who is a combat veteran with 10 years of service in the U.S. Army, said, "I like what Colin's doing and see that the potential for business growth here is phenomenal. This is cutting-edge technology, but the setting is quiet and serene. I have post-traumatic stress issues and wouldn't do well in an office.
Archi's Acres customers include Ryan Peterson, regional produce manager for grocer Jimbo's... Naturally!
"But I like the work and the relaxed attitude enough to want to stay on. I'm looking at the future of this—the hydroponic technology, the recycling of water, the delivery of the nutrients. It makes sense to me."
As a former unit leader, Archipley said he understands the structure veterans are comfortable with and at the same time knows the challenges of transition back to civilian life.
"When you start doing multiple deployments, your personality changes and you get separated from the general public," he said. "This environment provided me with some solitude and when I first got out, that suited me pretty well. I was able to focus more on the physical act of work and not the social demands."
What people bring out of the military is leadership skills and a solid work ethic, Archipley said, "but what the military doesn't always provide is new civilian job skills. For infantry guys like me, there aren't a lot of skills that can be used in the private sector.
"What we're doing is creating a new way of transitioning the veteran community. What we're finding in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder is that the diagnosis isn't being made until a year or two after discharge. In part that diagnosis results from a failure to re-integrate the veterans back into civilian life through occupational transition.
"I've discovered that while farming is an old occupation, there continues to be modern career opportunities in agriculture and for some it offers much-needed transition time and skills training."
Archipley gathers a bunch of fresh basil and walks the hill to his house. He puts the cluster of live herbs in a pitcher on the counter in his kitchen, smells the bouquet and navigates to the office, settling into his desk, aligned face-to-face with his wife's.
Vet-friendly farming programs
As U.S. military veterans make the sometimes difficult transition from active duty to civilian life, a number are turning to programs aimed at building skills in farming, including in California, the nation's largest agricultural state.
- Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training provides military veterans a transition to civilian life with practical work experience in small-scale farming. Information is available online at www.archisacres.com.
- The Farmer Veteran Coalition assists returning veterans entering farming or ranching for the first time. The coalition also supports veterans returning to their family farms and assists wounded veterans who want to go into farming or ranching. Program details are available online at www.farmvetco.org.
Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: In August 2014, Colin and Karen Archipley were among 12 veterans and their families honored by the "Champions of Change" program in Washington, D.C. Read the local news coverage of this honor.