Transitioning back to civilian life can be a challenge for service members. This agricultural bootcamp helps veterans cultivate new beginnings and find opportunities in farming and food.
Tony Lattner, AiSA’s director of education, in the Archi’s Acres greenhouse.
Photography by Naoki Nitta.
Within months of joining the U.S. Marine Corps, Colin Archipley was headed to war. “He went right from bootcamp to Iraq,” spending seven months on the front lines, says his wife Karen, referring to the 2003 US-led military invasion. After a half-year return to Camp Pendleton near San Diego, he repeated the cycle twice: a deployment to Fallujah followed by a brief reprieve back in California, and then a final tour in Haditha, just as Iraq’s western province became a hotspot.
Suffering from severe post-traumatic stress, Archipley was ready to retire after his four-year enlistment. “You don’t come back without damage from that,” says Karen. Yet checking out of the armed forces, the couple came to find, was a shockingly abrupt procedure with scant support. At that time, the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Transition Assistance Program, which was developed in 1991 to smooth the shift from active duty to civilian life, extended just four days. “It was harsh,” she says. They were left to navigate a lot on their own, including finding doctors familiar with combat-related conditions while trying to secure appointments at the Veterans Administration—on top of figuring out Archipley’s next career step.
Fortunately, the couple had invested in a 2.5-acre farm in Escondido, near Camp Pendleton, in between tours. “Farming turned out to be really healing,” says Karen, allowing her husband to decompress outdoors through physically demanding but rewarding challenges. After ending his service in 2006, Archipley and his wife established Archi’s Acres, an organic hydroponic farm that supplies basil and other specialty crops to local restaurants and stores.
With the successful launch of the business and a renewed sense of purpose, the couple looked to extend their reach. In 2007, they established the Veteran’s Sustainable Agriculture Training program, since renamed as Archi’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (AiSA), an agricultural training program designed to transition active and former armed force members into growers. Like a boot camp of sorts, the six-week intensive program immerses students in all aspects of sustainable farming and entrepreneurship and ushers them into viable, agriculture-based careers.
Along the way, it’s also become a platform—one that the Archipleys have leveraged to advocate for stronger government support in transitioning troops out of uniform.
A mission-driven attitude
In recent years, the unemployment rate among veterans has dipped dramatically, generally falling below the national rate. But, according to a study commissioned by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), historically, vets under the age of 24 have faced higher rates, which hit 29 percent in 2011. The gap closes quickly, however, with age and time out of uniform, the report suggests, and with proper education and training, former service members are quick to overcome skill deficits.
“[Those] leaving the military need a new purpose,” says Jeanette Lombardo, executive director of Farmer Veteran Coalition. The non-profit organization supports veterans in their transition to agricultural careers and provides tuition grants to several training programs, including AiSA. The armed forces instill “grit and a mission-driven attitude,” she says, so the challenging nature of farming—the weather, pests and disease, the market—is often a good fit.
Service members also tend to be well versed in technology, Lombardo notes, making skills such as piloting drones readily transferable to the climate-smart and precision ag sectors. And disabled veterans are just as capable, she adds, particularly in marketing, logistics, distribution and compliance. “It’s a huge talent pool.”
Colin Archipley (far left) and Karen Archipley (far right) with a recent crop of students. (Photo courtesy AiSA)
The armed force’s emphasis on leadership training also helps stoke an entrepreneurial spirit. With a full military career under their belt, “many vets want to be their own boss,” says Tony Lattner, AiSA’s director of education and a retired Marine, “or [move on to] some type of supervisory role.” He notes that of the 600 or so program graduates, more than two-thirds either own their own farm or business or manage an operation.
Along with teaching agronomics, soil health and sustainable farming practices, AiSA places a big emphasis on developing an agriculture-related enterprise. Over six weeks, the curriculum covers the full seed-to-market process including access to financing, food safety and building a business plan around a farming operation. The program, which is also open to civilians, moved completely online in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic to better accommodate service members spread throughout the world. (Local students still have the option of additional, on-site training.)
The class culminates in a final exam and a Shark Tank-style pitch to a jury of food professionals, industry leaders and investors. In addition to farming, graduates have gone on to launch successful ventures such as a chain of empanada stores in San Diego and a custom meat-processing facility serving small-scale ranchers in Lancaster, Kentucky.
The fast pace translates to three hours of classes twice a week and around five hours of daily reading and assignments. “It’s like a full-time job,” says Arlet Galindo, a current student. A human resources specialist in the Air Force, she’d been stationed in Turkey for her final assignment and has been juggling her studies while settling into life back home in Los Angeles. But organization, structure and time management come with the territory, she says. “That’s the military mentality—you just have to get it done. Failure is not an option,” she adds with a laugh.
The AiSA program places a big emphasis on developing an agriculture-related enterprise. (Photo courtesy AiSA)
Galindo is one of a number of students in the 15-person class attending the course through SkillBridge, a DoD career transition program. Established in 2011, it allows service members to acquire civilian work experience through training, internships and apprenticeships during the final 180 days of their enlistment. Although the positions are unpaid, troops are relieved of their military duties and receive pay and benefits throughout the transition period.
The scaffolding is essential to post-service success, says Karen Archipley. Before SkillBridge, troops were being pushed out of the military with little civilian experience and a lot of vulnerability. “People often took any job they could get because they had families to support or medical needs to cover,” she says, recalling an early AiSA graduate who attended the class while homeless. In 2013, in a plea to bolster career transition support for veterans, the Archipleys presented his story and other similar cases to then-OSD director Frank DiGiovanni—leading the White House to later recognize their efforts.
A new call to service
In 2016, AiSA became a college credit program through Cal Poly Extended Extension, a move that allowed service members to tap their GI Bill benefits for tuition. But as of last year, a new partnership with the University of Minnesota Crookston gives program graduates a fully accredited agricultural certificate—a credential that equates to a year’s worth of working experience when applying for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Beginning Farmer loan.
Along with helping students leverage their military background to access capital, the program also emphasizes market viability. As a course requirement, students submit a comprehensive business plan at the end of the term—one that can be handed over to a loan officer or used to attract investors. “The whole idea is that their [venture] is sustainable, both financially and resource-wise,” says Lattner, the educational director. “If you have to get a second job to run the farm, it defeats the purpose.”
Tony Lattner points out student projects. (Photo: Naoki Nitta)
Samantha Stephens, a recent AiSA graduate winding down a decade-long career in the Marines, was startled to find out what it would take to run her husband’s family ranch in Georgia. While the mother of two—with a third on the way—will concentrate on parenting for the next few years, the couple’s long-term plan is to expand the two-acre llama, goat and sheep farm to include cows, chickens and a greenhouse. Understanding the breadth of compliance, taxes and regulations “opened my eyes to how much we’ll need to produce to justify doing the business,” she says.
Still, students see their service background as an apt segue to farming. There are obvious parallels in decision-making and prioritization, says Grant Taute. The current student and Osprey pilot is hanging up his wings after 20 years in the Marine Corps to become an avocado and specialty crop farmer outside of San Diego. Despite a very different professional pace, he says, the process is similar. “Whether it’s water, time or money, you constantly have to decide, ‘how am I going to best expend this resource?’”
And, ultimately, many service members see farming as yet another calling. Erick Raymundo-Vidrio, an aircraft technician retiring from a seven-year career in the Air Force, is planning to start a container farm. By bolstering food security for his community, he says, “I still feel like I’m answering a call to serve. Just at a smaller scale.”
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