By Miriam Raftery
May 9, 2009 (Escondido)—After serving three tours of duty in Iraq, including urban combat zones in Fallujah and Haditha, former Marine Kevin Archipley and his wife, Karen (shown in photo) bought a farm in Escondido and resolved to help returning combat veterans adapt to civilian life.
“What the farm offers veterans is decompression,” he told East County Magazine. “In Iraq and Afghanistan, but especially Iraq, in the urban areas every window, every door, every rooftop is a danger. Garbage by the road could be an IUD. Cars are too close; they’re not allowed close to you in Iraq. . . When you come back home, you can’t turn those filters off. We’re talking with counselors who tell us some vets haven’t left their homes in a year. Out here, they’re out of an urban environment, but they’re still getting to a job every day.”
Initially, Colin planned to become a mortgage broker when he got out of the military. But he soon realized, “My personality had changed. I just couldn’t see myself on the phone all day.” Six months before his deployment was up, Karen’s mother, who worked as an importer of Italian products, died. Karen wanted to move to Italy. But Colin recalled, “I was just looking forward to coming home.”
They found an ideal solution, purchasing land with an avocado grove. Since then, they’ve added a greenhouse as well as exterior crops including heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, chard, kale, squash, basil and seasonal items such as broccoli. Vets learn organic farming skills and also the art of growing all crops (except avocados) using hydroponics. The farm works in collaboration with the Veterans Administration (V.A.) through a compensated work therapy program.
“We integrated organics with hydroponics. It really gave us our name: Veterans Sustainable Agricultural Training (VSAT),” Colin said. “Hydroponics is extremely water efficient. In Israel, Australia and India, places where there are water shortages, this is a common practice. Hydroponics (meaning water works) dates back to the hanging gardens of Babylon and the Aztecs. Even lilies in a pond are grown hydronically.”
In hydroponic farming, plants are grown not in soil, but in soil-less mediums such as volcanic rock, coconut husk or vermiculite. Drip irrigation waters crops and water is collected in pipes underneath, which in turn channel the water to an underground tank where water is pumped and recycled. Taking soil out of the equation eliminates 90% of pests, diseases and contaminants, Colin said, and allows the farmer complete control of nutrients.
In addition to helping veterans learn productive skills, the program helps address our nation’s most pressing problems: the energy crisis, drought, and unemployment. Unemployment is higher among veterans than the civilian population. “I’d say it’s 20 percent,” estimates C olin. “Some of my buddies reenlisted because they couldn’t find a job.”
Many veterans enjoy hands-on, physical labor, which agriculture provides. In addition, the program helps train farmers of the future—an important point given that the average age of farmers is growing older, with few young people getting into the profession.
Olaf Hansen, an ex-Navy lieutenant, says working at Archi’s Acres has “given me a a lot of peace of mind. Working with others vets is very peaceful. I don’t have to watch every word—and I don’t have to dress up, plus I’m learning a lot about organic gardening.” During our interview, he tended basil plants in a greenhouse.
"We’re able to water several thousand plants off just five gallons of water,” Colin revealed. “This greenhouse alone uses about as much water as two avocado trees, but it produces several times as much income.” Basil plants take just seven weeks to grow from seed to harvest, and can be grown year-round with lighting in the greenhouse. The farm sells its produce at farmers’ markets and to local health food stores including Jimbo’s and Whole Foods. Crops are sold as living products with roots attached and moist, providing the ultimate in freshness.
On May 6th, Archi’s Acres was awarded an E.A.R.T.H. award from San Diego Earthworks. On May 17th, a fundraiser called The Harvest Project will be held in Balboa Park to help raise money to build a second greenhouse for the farm. (See our story on the fundraising event: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=node/1098)
According to Jeff Scanlon, Manager of San Diego’s Veteran Affairs Compensated Work Therapy/Veterans Industries program, “Archi’s Acres VSAT brings to life the benefits of leveraging private and public support for veterans, creating a model for developing similar programs in other locations. Our assessments shows that working in a relaxed, outdoors farm environment aids combat veterans’ decompression and adjustment to civilian life. The sustainable agriculture curriculum prepares these veterans to compete in the growing green jobs category. It’s a clear win-win all around.”
Now Colin has dreams of fulfilling an even bigger vision. He wants to partner with others to convert abandoned warehouses in San Diego, East County or other areas in the region to expand the veterans’ training program. Roofs of warehouses could be removed and replaced with clear corrugated plastic, converting them into urban greenhouses. Unlike the rugged terrain at his farm, an urban greenhouse could be wheelchair accessible to help train disabled veterans.
“We also want to work with a community college so our vets will get a certification,” said Colin, who estimates each urban warehouse could generate a half million dollars a year in revenues.
Another option would be to create rooftop gardens on flat-roofed buildings. “Not only are you creating income from growing crops, but you also cut heating and cooling costs by 10%,” he said. “Let’s take these abandoned warehouses all over and get them productive again—and it will be a therapeutic environment.”