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Farm program aims to help returning veterans find peace, purpose

SAN DIEGO — On a small organic farm outside San Diego, a former combat Marine has found peace and purpose in the tending of plants and in providing other combat veterans a way to find their places in life after war.

At Archi’s Acres, the phrase “boots on the ground” has a whole new meaning, and the sounds of those boots working hydroponic “fields” of basil, chard and deep-green lettuce are echoing around the country, including in the Red River Valley.

“If we got something like that going in North Dakota, I’d promote the hell out of it,” said Lee Finstad, a Vietnam veteran and Veterans Service Officer for Grand Forks County.

Colin Archipley, who served three tours in Iraq, started the farm with his wife, Karen. He soon found a way to share his new mission with other returning veterans, developing an intensive six-week course that combines therapy with training in agriculture and entrepreneurship.

The 270-hour course operates in partnership with California State University San Marcos and with the support of a nearby Marine base. Veteran benefits and donations help to cover costs, and the goal is for students to produce a business model that will provide them with work, income, pride and purpose.

“They were trained to use rifles and coordinate air strikes, not operate businesses,” Archipley told Fast Company magazine, which featured him recently as one of its 50 most creative people of 2011. “But we tap into the leadership skills they’ve obtained in the military.”

Too often, he told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Marines and soldiers separate from their branch of service where they had a mission focus, they had intent and a larger family, and they leave that and come back to the private sector.”

They want their new lives to be about more than working 9 to 5 and paying the bills. “Introducing them to entrepreneurship refocuses their energy,” he said.

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‘Terrific idea’

Archipley’s experiment has drawn national interest recently, including a feature segment on the NBC Nightly News, and people who work with returning service members in this agriculture-oriented region see promise in the approach.

“It’s a really cool idea, a terrific idea,” said Jim Deremo, North Dakota state service officer for the American Legion.

“I think we need to look at everything” when it comes to helping veterans who struggle with the transition from military to civilian life, Deremo said. “Not everybody is made to sit behind a desk. With something like this, you’re out in the country, safe, not in a crowd feeling hassled.”

The Veterans Administration did a study on vets who came home after World War II, Finstad said, and the study found that “guys who went into farming showed a lower incidence of alcoholism” and related problems.

An attorney in Grand Forks, Finstad has been the county VSO for a few months. He said he bought a small farmstead while attending UND Law School, and spending time there helped him deal with the residual effects of his war experiences.

“It was the happiest I’ve been in my life,” he said.

“A program like this could be a lifesaver. I might be the first guy to sign up,” he said.

Theresa Sandness, Veterans Service Officer in northwest Minnesota’s Norman County, agreed that a blend of agricultural and entrepreneurial training “could be a wonderful option here,” and she was eager to check deeper into the program at Archi’s Acres.

“Maybe we could even pull him in here and do some training,” she said.

Interest peaks

Some returning troops have done three or four tours in combat zones, Sandness said. One returnee she has worked with went eight times to Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan.

“We’re hearing from a lot of guys and gals coming back that they’re almost forced to go back to school because there are no jobs” that suit them, she said.

“When we talk to them about what might be available, their interest peaks when we talk about self employment,” she said. “They want to do something for themselves, and they want to be prideful of what they do. So this might be very valuable.”

Jim Brubaker, regional director of vocational rehabilitation and other veterans benefits programs within the Veterans Administration, said that self-employment for veterans is increasingly seen as an option in rural areas where advances in technology and communication lessen the challenges of remoteness and sparse population.

Existing rules would limit the VA’s involvement in start-up agriculture, he said. “We can’t buy animals, tractors or land.” But training assistance is possible, “and we work hand in hand with the veteran and agencies like the Small Business Administration.”

A federally-funded Veterans Upward Bound program, with sites at UND and North Dakota State University in Fargo, offers free tutoring “for vets who want to go back to college but need a tune-up,” said James Becks, coordinator of the UND site in the Memorial Student Union. “We also help them navigate through the various veterans and social agencies.”

An agriculture/entrepreneurial training program “would appeal to a lot of people, especially from around this area,” Becks said.

“Work like that could be a great stress reliever,” he said. “It can have a calming effect. But could we get it to work? Could we manage all the coordination to make it happen? That’s the question.”

Out from a bush

One of Archi’s Acres’ most successful graduates is Mike Hanes, 36, a former Marine who saw combat in Iraq and had a tough time adjusting to life back in the United States.

He told the San Diego newspaper that for two years after he left the service, he was homeless while attending college.

“After class at night, I’d crawl into a bush,” he said.

Hanes graduated in 2009 from San Diego State University, but he needed business skills. What he learned at Archi’s Acres helped him develop and market his own hot sauce, which he sells now in a dozen Whole Foods stores under the brand name Dang!

“This program pretty much put me on the fast track,” he told the Union-Tribune. “I had the concept for awhile, but I didn’t have the tools I needed to get it going.”

And there was more.

“The farm, being around plants, helped me transition from the struggles of combat,” he said. At Archi’s Acres, “you’re surrounded by veterans and people who understand where you’re coming from.”

For more info: Go to ArchisAcres.com.


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