Planting the seeds of change: How Veterans to Farmers helps vets turn over a new leaf

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

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Veterans to Farmers provides job opportunities for veterans and fresh, locally-produced food for communities.
(photo via modernfarmer.com)

Buck Adams started hiring veterans to work in his greenhouses because it just made so much sense. For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a greenhouse is a natural decompression chamber.

“There’s daylight, natural life, no hustle and bustle besides the hum of fans and water flowing so it’s tranquil and peaceful. The natural process of seeing life and nurturing life and growing something that feeds others—I think that helps the brain heal itself,” he says.

A former U.S. Marine Corps Security Forces NCO who’s been around agriculture his whole life—his parents raised chickens on contract for Tyson in Arkansas—Buck describes seeing the effects of the greenhouse on vets as an “a-ha!” moment. He knew he had to share the stability and security he found in sustainable agriculture with others, so he founded the Denver-area nonprofit Veterans to Farmers in 2012. 

The journey to get there was winding. After returning from the service, Buck bounced around for a few years before learning about the growing importance of localized food systems and energy conservation—and how the U.S. lags behind in using new technology to grow food in clean, efficient ways (for example, Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)—the method his greenhouses use, wherein plants are grown aeroponically and hydroponically in a highly controlled greenhouse environment, maximizing output and resources while minimizing waste, pests, and diseases).

Buck used this knowledge to found Circle Fresh Farms in 2009, which is now Colorado’s largest hydro-organic greenhouse grower. If you’ve bought organic tomatoes from Whole Foods, there’s a good chance they came from the Circle Fresh network.

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Buck Adams in one of his greenhouses.
(photo courtesy of VTF)

To share the opportunities he found in farming with his fellow veterans, Buck made it part of his company’s policy to hire vets in 2011.

VTF grew from this decision; today they work to train vets in horticulture and business management to provide communities with fresh, healthy food and veterans with a chance to gain the skills they need to start or manage greenhouse businesses of their own. At least three graduates of the VTF program have gone on to start (or are in the process of starting) their own farms. 

It’s a perfect match, as there’s a lot of overlap between the skills and training gained in the military and those it takes to monitor a CEA greenhouse.

“The controlled environment runs on highly regimented standard operating procedures which vets are used to,” Buck says. “They’re paying close attention to their work, and their military training overlaps very well with this kind of growing… It’s a natural transition.”

VTF is now working on building a national agricultural and business management training center for vets in downtown Denver. This facility will also serve as the site of a vet-owned farming co-op which will provide fresh, organic vegetables to the surrounding community through CSA memberships.

It might sound simple, but starting his own greenhouse business and nonprofit wasn’t easy, and Buck faces funding challenges as this major commercial project develops in the coming year. They’re launching a Kickstarter campaign this Veterans Day to help bring the project to fruition.

Despite the busy year ahead, he keeps at it. He attributes his success to combining good ideas, good timing, and a lot of hard work.

From there, “It’s just grown organically,” he jokes.

In the past, we’ve blogged about an all-volunteer veteran disaster relief organization, a veteran who volunteers with a blind baseball team, and a veteran healing project.

What other organizations, companies, or individuals are working to help veterans readjust to civilian life?

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Is Your Town a Fair Trade Town?

This post by Elena Martín originally appeared in Spanish at Idealistas.org.

Via flickr user jetalone (Creative Commons)

Fair trade coffee, chocolate, and other products have been growing in name recognition and popularity for years now. But recently, the fair trade movement has received a boost at the local government level as entire towns, villages, and cities work to meet the requirements of the Fair Trade Town designation.

Fair Trade Towns have a few things in common, starting with a commitment by the City or Town Council to support and serve fair trade products at government functions. They also establish a committee of individuals representing different sectors of the community who work to further the goals of the fair trade movement, and generate buzz in the community in favor of this type of commerce.

A town or city isn’t just its government, though. To be a true Fair Trade Town, there must be a commitment from schools, businesses, places of worship, and community organizations to support the fair trade movement and use fair trade products whenever possible. That being said, you can’t be a Fair Trade Town without a plethora of fair trade products readily available for purchase at local retailers, more so than just the options for fair trade coffee you’ll find at some supermarkets.

The Fair Trade Town designation from the Fairtrade Foundation is an example of how scaling ideas at the community level can help propel a movement. When a whole town commits to buying and selling fair trade products, local markets have greater access to fair trade wholesalers who are then able to provide more choice to consumers. More demand for fair trade goods ultimately benefits the producers at the heart of the movement.

What do you think? Would this work in your city or town?

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Thinking Vertically: Food Systems of the Future

Two Idealist staffers recently attended All Day Buffet’s Social Innovation Conference, tantalizingly dubbed The Feast. Joanna reported back that she’d heard Dr. Dickson Despommier speak about his ambitious plans for reinventing how we farm. Dr. Despommier is the pioneer behind the concept of the vertical farm, a potential solution to the dual problems of rising populations and the pending farmland shortage. In the interest of helping good ideas travel, I started Googling the topic.

The idea is both simple and ingenious. Let’s build off the local food movement, reduce transportation costs and pollution, reduce deforestation, and reduce the need for pesticides by growing food in environmentally friendly urban skyscrapers. Imagine a 30-story building in the middle of New York City with its own irrigation system, recycling system, solar paneled roof, and enough food crops to feed 50,000 nearby people. Doubt all this food can be grown indoors? Hydroponic and aeroponic growing methods (researched by NASA for the purposes of space farming—seriously, the future is now) make it theoretically possible.

The price tag for such a venture is huge, and critics argue the plans aren’t cost-effective or practical. In this video from the Big Think Blog, Dr. Despommier responds to the naysayers: “The first one of anything is expensive.”

The idea is gaining attention and supporters. Dr. Despommier says there are 12 vertical farms being planned around the world. If you want to learn more about this big idea, check out the Vertical Farm Project.

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