After three combat tours in Iraq, Colin Archiplay faced a difficult transition back to civilian life in the United States and the challenge of deciding how he would continue to serve his country.
With the motivation of his wife, Karen Archiplay, the couple found a unique way to serve the military community and promote healthy living - train U.S. veterans and their families in organic farming.
The director of operations of Archi's Acres Inc., Rob Lewis, spoke with www.freshfruitportal.com on how the couple took a run-down avocado farm in Escondido, California and turned it into an entreprenuerial incubator, the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program.
"It allows Colin and Karen the opportunity to continue to serve marines, or the military family really. And not just active duty veterans but also their family members, some of who have graduated this class," Lewis said.
In two years, Lewis said the 150 students had graduated from the program in sustainable agriculture practices, including organic production methods, farm ownership and management, and how to build a business model.
The program is dedicated to not just training future farmers but also entrepreneurs.
Lewis explained that finishing the program is just the begininning.
"We have an employment expert who tracks them on down the road. We maintain that database. We have more demand than we have students right now, so we’re really working hard to get more students in here because we have excellent, high-paying jobs and/or eureprenuerial opportunities that we can plug these veterans into.
"There’s not a lot of industries that can say that right now and there certainly aren’t a lot of vocational schools that can make the kind of commitment that we are making to each individual student to make sure that they have a career in their area, in their hometown and that meets their needs."
Green Bee Farms in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina is one of many veteran-owned operations born from the program's entrepreneurial philosophy.
Mirka Marlowe, a marine veteran, and her husband, Thomas Marlowe, completed the VSAT program in the summer of 2011 when Mirka was transitioning out of the military.
Running a farm has been a learning period for them, filled with ups and downs. The small, hydroponic farm, however, has already received attention from local media and has even gotten its products into supermarkets, a feat due in part to the VSAT emphasis on networking.
In limited space, the farm produces okra, a variety of peppers, heirloom tomatoes, basil, wheat grass, kale, mint and sprouts. The production serves not only the local community but also the couple's hope to create a healthy, organic lifestyle for their daughter.
Green Bee Farm is an example of what the VSAT program strives to achieve by easing veterans back into civilian life and helping communities stay healthy.
"It really eases and helps facilitate that transititon for service members back into civilian life and it’s a very difficult transition, especially for our combat veterans but certainly for any service member," says Lewis.
"That transition from putting down the arms and picking up whatever tools you’re going to use in civilian life, it’s not easy under the best of circumstances and certainly after 10 years of war, it’s no easier."
Labor statistics reflect the difficulty of transition that Lewis mentions. In September 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 9.7% unemployment rate for veterans that have served since 2001, compared to 7.4% for non-veterans. The gap jumps even higher for women who have served since 2001, reporting 19.9% unemployment compared to 7.3% for non-veteran women.
Archi's Farm hopes to continue expanding in coming years to help ease this gap, and already has his eyes on expansion. Lewis says that, given farm industry demand and veteran need, he hopes the farm will expand to new regions and serve a greater quantity of people. As a graduate of the program himself, Lewis has nothing but praise for VSAT and the future that the Archiplay vision has ahead.