Sustainable agriculture training helps veterans grow into organic farming careers.
By Tyler Smith
If anyone had told Marine combat veteran Mike Hanes a few years ago that he would be the owner of a successful business, he might have laughed. But today Hanes’ company, Forager Mike’s SuperFoods, distributes its own line of organic hot sauce that has been selling off the shelves.
Hanes, 36, didn’t just walk blindly into the raw and organic food industry – he had a long love affair with wild, edible plants that began with his Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) training as a Force Reconnaissance Marine. It was this training that taught him which wild plants were edible. In fact, Hanes became so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about edible wildlife that he became known for a saying among his fellow Marines: “There’s natural foods all around us, let’s go pick a salad.” It also earned him the nickname Forager Mike.
When Hanes separated from the Marine Corps in 2004 after more than eight years of service, including a tour in Iraq in 2003, he hit hard times. Hanes lived in the Southern California wilderness, relying on his survival skills, while working toward a bachelor’s degree in environmental social services from San Diego State University.
When Hanes attended an Earth Day Fair in 2008 and saw a sign for a program called Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT), he knew he had found his next mission – and he could pick a salad while he was doing it. What Hanes didn’t know was that VSAT would change his life.
VSAT is operated by Archi’s Acres, a small, veteran-owned organic farm nestled in the hills of Escondido, Calif., just outside San Diego. The farm and program are owned and operated by former Marine Corps Sgt. Colin Archipley and his wife, Karen. Together, in partnership with California State University San Marcos, and soon San Bernardino, they’ve cultivated the VSAT program into a thriving learning experience. It consists of a six-week training course that teaches students traditional agriculture, organics, hydroponics and sustainable agriculture.
The VSAT program is helping to fill a growing void: The U.S. needs a million new farmers over the next 10 years. According to a 2007 USDA report, 65.8 percent of small farm operators are over the age of 55, and only 4.1 percent are younger than 35.
“There’s also the challenge of high-tech crop production,” said Karen Archipley. “Farming is not easy; you have to be able to stay flexible, stay with it, hang tough. Every day is different; it can be an adrenaline rush. Combat vets are really good at that.”
The learning process extends beyond just gaining the ability to grow your own organic crops. The program teaches “agribusiness,” where students create their own business plan based on their agricultural experience and present it to a panel of industry leaders. The panel consists of human resources professionals, produce buyers, bankers, private investors and military personnel – all of whom provide feedback and help grade each student’s business plan.
Students also take a final exam at the end of the six weeks and receive certificates from both Archi’s Acres VSAT and California State University San Marcos.
Scholarships & Job placement
Since its start in 2007, more than 100 veterans have graduated from the VSAT program, most of them 9/11 veterans. These graduates have taken different avenues for employment at various farms and businesses – almost always with the help of job placement through VSAT.
“We have connected them with other farms to do sharecropping, or we’ve assisted them in taking over someone’s farm, or in developing their own property that they already had,” Karen Archipley said.
“We work with the Farm Service Agency now, and they consider our VSAT training to be equivalent to one year of farm ownership. And what that means is if they wanted to get an operator’s loan, then it would help them to qualify.”
The program, including 240 hours of learning and 30 hours of job readiness training, costs $4,500. Scholarships are available to help students pay for the program. VSAT works with Disabled American Veterans and the Semper Fi Fund, and the Archipleys are setting up scholarships for veterans and their spouses through each individual military branch.
DANG!!! It’s Good Hot Sauce
Mike Hanes attributes his success to VSAT’s hands-on training and practical business planning. His business plan and enthusiasm led private investor Diego Espinosa to believe in the potential success of Hanes’s idea and give DANG!!! its initial financial backing. Karen Archipley was then able to track down Dwight Detter, a Vietnam-era veteran who is the local forager with Whole Foods Market in the Southern Pacific region of the U.S. It’s Dwight’s job to locate new products to distribute through Whole Foods and he was able to help Hanes get his product on the shelves.
“If it wasn’t for that program, there’s no way this would be on the shelves in Whole Foods and it wouldn’t be expanding the way it’s doing,” he said. “The program is a veteran collaborative network, really, and it kind of lays the foundational track for veterans to get back on their feet, to understand all the intricate details involved with a business and its growing and expanding.”
VSAT also taught Hanes the value of networking.
“So the knowledge that they have given to me has been priceless,” he said. “And not only the knowledge, but the connections and the network, which I didn’t really understand how important it was before.”
Now that Hanes has gotten his product off the ground and on to the shelves at Whole Food Markets, he has been working on expanding. His sauce is available at Hot Licks, a chain of hot sauce stores in San Diego, and Hanes is working with San Diego SOL Markets. He’s also expanding the number of Whole Food locations that carry his sauce, which recently was approved to go regional. That means he will sell out of 43 more stores in California, Arizona and Hawaii. His next step is for DANG!!! to be sold nationally.
Along with his retail expansion, Hanes hopes to develop more organic products in the future. “I’m just focusing on the hot sauce for now, but I am integrated and set up to expand on other products,” he said. “That is the ultimate goal because I just have a slew of ideas in the back of my mind.”
Viable for veterans
Hanes said agriculture has room for transitioning veterans.
“Programs like these are extremely important in today’s time,” he said. “The agricultural community, even given our current economic condition, is the one area where there is tremendous room for growth. Right now the agricultural sector only employs about 1 percent of the population in the U.S., and half of that is at retirement age. So not only is it a great transition for combat veterans, but it’s also a viable position to get into the work force for a declining economy.”
Hanes’s use of organic ingredients in his product allows him to play his part in sustaining the environment for future generations, something extremely important to him because of his daughter and his desire to put something positive in the world for her.
For a list of Hanes’s products, visit www.gijobs.com/sauce.
Did You Know?
44% of service members are from rural America
Source: U.S. Department of Defense
65.8% of small farm operators are over the age of 55
Source: USDA 2007 report
11% of all fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S. in 2010 were organic
Source: Organic Trade Association
Increase in U.S. sales of organic food and beverages since 1990
Source: Organic Trade Association
Marine sergeant, wife share their success in organic farming.
By Tyler Smith
It wasn’t Colin and Karen Archipley’s intention to own and operate a three-acre avocado farm in Southern California. But their decision is one the couple is very happy with.
Colin Archipley enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2002 and served three tours in Iraq. He and Karen married between his second and third tours and bought a farm in Escondido, Calif., just north of San Diego. Escondido is California’s incarnation of Tuscany, so the farm was a perfect compromise between Karen’s dream of moving to the Tuscany region of Italy and Colin’s reluctance to leave the United States.
Avocados Aren’t Easy
They realized very quickly, however, that trying to maintain a grove of avocado trees was no cheap task. Excessive water bills from irrigating their crops prompted the couple to change their farming approach, and when Colin separated from the Marine Corps as a sergeant in 2006, they began developing their land into what would become Archi’s Acres – a sustainable, hydroponic, organic farm.
Their use of hydroponics allowed the Archipleys to use 90 percent less water than traditional farming and harvest organic produce 17 times per year, which is twice the conventional amount. Basil is now the farm’s main crop, which is sold through Whole Food Markets and Jimbo’s Naturally in San Diego, but they also grow Siberian kale, lettuce, citrus, and avocados and sell the produce at a local farmers’ market.
Called to Serve
When Colin’s former unit redeployed overseas, it was difficult because the new veteran felt like he was left behind. Karen didn’t want her husband to reenlist and go back overseas, however, and their compromise led to the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program.
“I said if you want to serve, you have to serve right here, and we created this program as a way for him to continue to serve and so we can serve together from home,” Karen said.
Their farm and VSAT program have been so successful that Colin and Karen are making big plans for growth. “We are getting ready to expand nationwide,” Karen said. “We are looking at launching an Archi’s Acres VSAT in Ohio, San Antonio, Boston and Menifee (Calif.).”
The Archipleys were voted #93 in Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business in 2011, were guests at Time magazine’s Chicago Ideas Week, and were speakers on TEDx for Veterans Day.
For more on Archi’s Acres and the VSAT program, visit www.gijobs.com/archi.