Veterans Become Farmers
We hear a lot about the problems America is facing, but not a lot about positive solutions. Serving your country is an honorable tradition; yet finding a direction, searching out employment, and dealing with battle-related mental issues all plague our returning men and women in uniform. Buck Adams, former Marine Corps Security Forces, found stability and a future in urban farming. His organization, Veterans to Farmers, is passing along this same security to hundreds of others.
Finding Direction and Purpose
“You kind of get out of the big ‘green machine,’ and one day you’re totally regimented and the next day you’re out on your own and not really knowing where you’re heading or what’s going on,” Adams told Organic Connections. “Today they say that about 58 to 60 percent of the guys coming back that have seen action have some kind of mental issue—30 percent if they’ve been in a support role. It seems like everyone I’ve talked to has a little bit of reintegration anxiety, not knowing exactly where they are going or what to do.
“I’ve seen that working with living things (plants), working in our greenhouses, is like being in a decompression zone. You get to actually see the fruits of your labor. And you’re still interacting with the community, you’re still providing a service, which I think a lot of our guys and gals are kind of missing when they come back, not knowing how to break into civilian life. Even if they don’t choose farming as a career, it’s a great transition period.”
Warriors to Farmers
Veterans to Farmers began as a program within Circle Fresh Farms, a Denver, Colorado–based greenhouse farming operation supplying both consumers and restaurants with sustainably raised produce. Adams was one of the founders and the CEO of Circle Fresh Farms. “I knew for myself that working in the greenhouse and working with plants was therapeutic,” Adams said. “So I just made it a company mission to start training veterans. The response was so overwhelming when the ad was run that I looked at being able to fill a greater need than what we could do on the farm. It started out as a Warrior to Farmer program inside the company, but then we became independent. In 2012 we filed for our nonprofit status and we just recently got it from the IRS.”
Adams is seeing to the comprehensive training of these returning heroes. “We are in the process of building a training center in Denver,” he said. “It’s going to be a 12-week program that will be agriculture intensive and focused on urban farming. They’ll learn to go into cities and work with the city, how to negotiate for a piece of land that’s not being used or work with a developer who’s looking at developing suburban neighborhoods.
“The program teaches them how to run the greenhouse, how to grow the plants from seed to harvest, and how to market their crops through a CSA or restaurant-supported agricultural program. Then we also work with them on a business plan through a related instruction program at Colorado State University. We help them find financing or we help them find other work.”
Only off the ground a short time, Veterans to Farmers has seen positive results. “We’ve had eight so far through the farm,” Adams reported. “Of those, we have two that are managers at Circle Fresh Farms. Three have gone on to higher education. One has gotten all the way through the related instruction program and started his own farm, a restaurant-supported agricultural model in Lakewood, Colorado. Another graduate is going to be running the greenhouse of Sushi Den, a big sushi restaurant here in Denver. They have their own farm and he’s going to run their greenhouse.”
What has it meant to these veterans personally? “One of our graduates was almost homeless, and another was going from job to job and couldn’t hold anything down—now he owns his own business,” Adams related. “Another who is a manager for us was going from job to job as well and was almost homeless and divorced. He still ended up divorced but he’s been in a stable job for almost two years now.”
As the training center goes up, demand for the program and its expansion has been intense. “So far it’s overwhelming,” said Adams. “Just from launching the web page, we’ve had over 400 veterans directly asking how to get involved. We’re talking to a marine and an ex-SEAL in California about opening up a chapter in California. I’ve got a guy in Florida that we’re in talks with and a guy in Philly. So it’s all coming kind of fast, but it’s looking good.”
Exciting and Rewarding
The techniques taught to these veterans include a full understanding of growing. “It’s basically all controlled-environment agriculture,” Adams explained. “We teach organics, hydroponics, aeroponics and also vertical growing techniques. We use towers that allow us to grow 11 feet inside the greenhouse, so we’re looking at a 10,000- to 12,000-square-foot greenhouse being equivalent to an acre greenhouse, and that being equivalent to about 10 acres of land crops. We teach them the basics of plant biology, climate controls, and how the plant works in the sunlight with CO2 and photosynthesis. We teach nutrient programs and greenhouse maintenance.”
For Adams himself, seeing these veterans winning at life is a reward unto itself. “It’s been a ride for sure,” Adams concluded. “It’s like we kind of plugged in and away we went, and we’re just riding this wave that’s coming at us. But it’s been super-exciting and super-rewarding working with these guys and girls.”
For more information, please visit www.veteranstofarmers.org.