From The Organic Report, Spring 2011
By Jennifer Rose
When Colin Archipley returned from his third tour in Iraq in 2006, he and his wife, Karen, were ready for a change. She wanted to buy a plot of land in Italy; he wanted to stay in California and investigate a new career. They compromised, buying a 2-acre plot called Archi’s Acres, with 200 avocado trees in Valley Center, CA, about 30 miles from Camp Pendleton, where Colin had served as an infantry sergeant with the U.S. Marines.
“When we moved there, I didn’t know anything about agriculture, and didn’t plan to make farming my livelihood. I just started tending to the trees because they were there,” Colin explains.
This was no easy feat, as the avocado trees the Archipleys had inherited had long been neglected, and much work was needed to rehabilitate them. However, Colin and Karen were up to the challenge. Facing the high cost of watering the trees as well as frequent water shortages, the two began to investigate hydroponic agriculture. “I wasn’t sure about at first,” Colin remembers, “but Karen encouraged me to give it a try.” Karen also advocated that the couple manage their land organically. “I’d always been a fan of organic food, so it was a given that when we had a farm of our own, we would farm organically.”
Like many new businesses, what followed was a series of ups and downs. The couple invested $100,000 in a hydroponic system into which they added a fertilizer that they discovered harmed, rather than helped, the plants they were trying to grow. “One day, I looked out into the fields and things were dying” Colin recalls. “It was a definite set-back, but we were determined to keep going and find a solution.”
And that they did. Growth on the farm expanded, attracting the attention of a regional buyer from Whole Foods. Not long thereafter, Colin was selling produce grown on Archi’s Acres at area grocers and several farmers’ markets.
In spite of the shift to agriculture as his primary focus, Colin’s sense of connection to the military remained strong. “My commitment to the military itself had ended, but I still felt a deep commitment to the people in it.” At the same time, he had a strong desire to help his fellow veterans make the often difficult transition from active duty to civilian life. “Our country spends millions on these people, preparing them for war and supporting them while they are away on duty. When they retire, though, they are largely left to their own devices. Many wind up homeless, jobless, and without a sense of purpose. Economically and socially, they fall through the cracks.”
With the same determination they had used on the farm, Colin and Karen set to work to change this. Their vision: to create a program, centered around “the high growth industry” of sustainable agriculture, that would not only smooth veterans’ transition back to civilian life, but also equip them with the tools they need to run a business.
The two attended a town hall meeting in San Diego and shared this vision with Gary Rossio, who was then the acting Director of Veterans Affairs (VA) Healthcare. Rossio helped to connect them to the San Diego Veterans Affairs Healthcare System’s Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) program, a vocational rehabilitation program within the VA that works to match veterans with employers in need.
Together, Colin, Karen, and CWT worked to develop the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program. After a 3-year pilot program, the Archipleys reformed the program and separated from the VA. Now offered through the local community college, Mira Costa, VSAT is an intensive six-week program that prepares participants to work in the field of sustainable agriculture by educating them about sustainable methods and techniques as well as the business side of sustainable agriculture. This includes helping them to prepare a detailed business plan, which they can use to start their own business upon the completion of the program. As Colin describes it, “We cover everything from growing techniques to budgeting and logistics with the goal of enabling participants to leave the program with the knowledge and skills they need to become a contributing member of the sustainable agriculture community.”
At the same time, VSAT provides direct access to industry leaders, including USDA, the Small Business Administration, and Whole Foods Market (WFM), as well as lenders and entrepreneurs, who review and provide feedback on participants’ business plans, and at times, make available opportunities for post-VSAT collaboration. WFM, for example, expressed interest in one participant’s plan to develop a line of hot sauce. They are now working with an investor to explore next steps in their partnership.
While such tangible outcomes are important, both Karen and Colin are clear that they represent only a portion of the total value VSAT has to offer. The program also helps to honor veterans by enabling others to recognize the skills and talent they (veterans) possess. As Colin observes, “We help investors, prospective employers, and others to see veterans as individuals with the types of leadership and problem-solving skills that are not only applicable on the farm, but to any successful business.” Moreover, the program gives veterans a much needed sense of purpose by involving them in a vital national service: food production. In doing so, Colin notes, “VSAT helps to give back to this unique group that has given so much for our country.”