Fort Wayne farmer Rick Ritter is nearing the end of another harvest season on his seven-acre farm, located just 20 minutes southwest of the city. This year, Ritter and his team of volunteers have harvested more than 5,000 pounds of produce destined for local soup kitchens. But growing fruits and vegetables for those in need wasn’t always a part of his plan.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Ritter joined the Marine Corps in 1968, at the age of 20. His Father had served during World War II and his grandfather during World War I. Ritter enlisted during the height of the Vietnam War. “I didn’t have the upbringing to question much of what was going on in those days,” says Ritter. “I was taught not to question anyone…or anything.”
Ritter trained as a diesel mechanic, andhe rose through the ranks to become an E-5 sergeant and serve as an administrative chief. During boot camp in Quantico, Virginia, Ritter sustained a knee injury that would ultimately result in a medical discharge two-and-a-half years later. In April 1970, as an inpatient in the orthopedic ward, Ritter met a soldier who would change the course of his life forever. This soldier had been seriously injured in combat and had his arm amputated above the elbow. “He really changed my thinking about a number of things in my life,” Ritter recalls. “I owe him.”
After being discharged, Ritter went on to become a PTSD trauma therapist at the Fort Wayne VA Clinic. He also spent time working at Charter Beacon, a psychiatric inpatient hospital, as well as the Center for Nonviolence, an organization dedicated to providing support and advocacy to survivors of domestic violence. Eventually, Ritter would work in private practice as a therapist for many years before deciding to retire. “I got into this work because of my time in the military hospital. Since I survived, I saw my work as a tribute to those who didn’t,” he says.
Retirement didn’t mean it was time for Ritter to settle down or to stop putting his energy into helping others. As a therapist, Ritter worked with many people who were homeless or needy. “I never thought that the community resources were adequate to meet their needs,” says Ritter, who felt that “people are always required to jump through too many hoops to get the help that they need.” So, he set out to eliminate these obstacles.
In 2007, Ritter founded Dick’s Organics, an organization that he describes as a continuation of the work he did as a trauma therapist. “I have been blessed to continue this work of healing and sharing my abundance with others,” he says. What started as a modest three-acre plot has grown into a seven-acre farm complete with a 500-tree orchard, multiple beehives, a greenhouse and a variety of rescue animals. Dick’s Organics is named in honor of both Ritter’s father and grandfather who share the name. His grandfather found peace in gardening after returning home from World War I. “Working in the soil was healing for him, even if it wasn’t formalized,” says Ritter, who continues this family tradition.
In 2014, Ritter became a certified master gardener, and five years later, in 2019, Dick’s Organics became a legally recognized 501c3 nonprofit. “Until then, we were just doing things out of my pocket,” says Ritter. Now, the organization is able to accept tax-deductible donations.
Each year, Dick’s donates a majority of its harvest to local organizations, including St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen, which has been feeding people in need in downtown Fort Wayne since 1975. Ritter prides himself in donating high-quality organic produce. “The people we serve deserve the best,” he says.
Over the years, Ritter has been able to donate anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 pounds of food annually, depending on various factors. “One of the biggest variables is volunteer support,” says Ritter, but things such as weather, weeds and insect pressure also impact the harvest. “We have been blessed to have a group of volunteers willing to put their backs into the work.”
Dick’s Organics is a member of the Farmer Veteran Coalition as well as the Indiana Farmers Union. Ritter believes that “networking is a key ingredient to being successful in any level of farming.” The Farmer Veteran Coalition “strives to develop meaningful careers for veterans through the collaboration of farming and military communities,” he says, and it sponsors a number of programs to this end including the Homegrown by Heroes product label. Known as the official farmer veteran branding program of America, Homegrown by Heroes certifies farmers of all military eras and branches to label their products as veteran-owned and produced. Although Dick’s Organics doesn’t offer products commercially, it does carry the label. “Even if I don’t sell anything, it’s important to let other veteran farmers know that this branding is available,” says Ritter.
Despite the hard work that comes along with farming, Ritter is thankful to have the opportunity to grow and share the bounty of his farm with others. “Since I’ve outlived scores of my comrades, I cherish each day that I’m alive and able to do this work,” he says. “Some say that at the age of 75 I should travel or relax, but for me, it’s having a purpose that drives me forward.”