Veteran’s war-to-work idea for comrades is a growing effort
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 21, 2012
A little bit of salt and a lot of votes could propel a farm helping recovering veterans expand its sales into the stores of the nation’s largest retailer.
Datil Pepper Salt from Veterans Farm in Jacksonville, Fla., which employs veterans injured since Sept. 11, 2001, beat out about 4,000 entries to claim a spot among the 10 finalists in the Wal-Mart “Get on the Shelf” contest.
If it finishes in the top three — you can vote online through Tuesday — Wal-Mart will carry the product on its website. The grand prize winner will be sold at select Wal-Mart stores.
The farm is the brainchild of former Army Staff Sgt. Adam Burke, 34, who began looking for a way to help after meeting a homeless veteran in 2009.
“My heart goes out to these guys who struggle and come back with no direction in life, which is where I was when I first got back,” Burke said.
Burke said he was attached to the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq when he was injured by an incoming mortar in 2004. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, he said.
Injured veterans apply for six-month fellowships at the farm, where they learn about the business and the physical work involved in running a farm. Farm workers receive instruction from professors at the University of Florida and the University of Georgia, Burke said.
The goal is to provide veterans with job skills that they can use to support themselves and their families, at a time when veterans are unemployed in numbers far outpacing the general population.
The unemployment rate for post 9-11 veterans was 12.1 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For male veterans between 18 and 24, the unemployment rate was 29.1 percent last year.
While Burke is clear about wanting to help those who need it, he is equally clear that the farm isn’t about coddling anyone.
“We don’t give any handouts,” Burke said. “They are challenged every day, and they step up to the challenge. That’s when we see them do their best. We want productive citizen leaders in our community.”
Shaun Valdivia, a former Marine lance corporal who served with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in Iraq and Afghanistan, is one of the veterans working on the farm.
Upon leaving active duty in 2009, Valdivia was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and depression. He said the farm has helped reintegrate him into society and has relieved some of his symptoms.
“What Adam does is strengthen the things you already know, or what you’re already good at, and also challenges your weaknesses,” Valdivia said. “For example … I had a tough time with being extremely shy and having issues with anxiety, which I never had a problem with before I enlisted. So he assigned me to public relations.”
Although the farm’s reach is modest, students at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., have been working to expand its footprint.
The college’s Students in Free Enterprise group met with Keith Bailey, the producer of Dr. Datil pepper-based products, who volunteers at the farm.
Datil peppers, which are similar in heat to habaneros but sweeter, have been grown in St. Augustine for hundreds of years.
Datil produces the salt for Veterans Farm, which grows the datil peppers.
Veterans Farm Datil Salt had been available locally, but the students thought it could use a new marketing approach to broaden its appeal. The students redesigned the label, produced a TV commercial and entered the product in the “Get on the Shelf” contest.
Through social media and crowd sourcing, they helped Veterans Farm reach the finals, said Flagler College student Katie Wylly.
“I believe that we should fight for those who fight for us, and that means helping veterans get jobs when they come home from combat,” she said.
To vote for the Veterans Farm entry in the contest, go to getontheshelf.com. There’s also a video about the project.
Regardless of the outcome, Burke said he is working to build on the farm’s success. He said he is talking with the USDA about leasing several large parcels of land.
For now, there are five to 10 veterans working on the farm, as each group completes its fellowships.
“I expect in five years to be helping hundreds, if not thousands, of veterans,” Burke said.