After Colin Archipley’s second tour of duty as a sergeant in Iraq, the former Marine and his wife, Karen, sold their home in Southern California and moved to a small farm in the hills near Escondido, outside San Diego. Colin found peace tending to their newly acquired avocado trees, and the thought of an eventual 9-to-5 job no longer appealed to him. Together, the couple started growing in-demand organic vegetables and herbs and harvesting those avocados. But after a few sky-high bills, Colin seized on a more sustainable path: hydroponic greenhouses that use very little water and grow abundant crops.
The success of their venture, Archi’s Acres, and the happiness Colin found with it, quickly became a magnet for other military veterans. It also gave rise to the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program, their entrepreneurial incubator that aims to help get transitioning servicemen and women ready to find jobs, launch their own businesses, or start their own farming operations. The program has had hundreds of graduates since its 2007 launch and has earned support from Whole Foods, Boeing, and even first lady Michelle Obama.
To mark Veterans Day, business writer Erin McDermott recently spoke with Colin and Karen Archipley about their unlikely path to entrepreneurship, the call of duty to help fellow service members, and the opportunities they’re seeing in their niche market.
EM: Did either of you have any farming background before you moved to your farm?
KA: No, but we had entrepreneurial experience. Colin was a squad leader in the Marine Corps, so it felt natural for him to move to agriculture and then teaching. I was a serial entrepreneur. When we bought our farm in 2005, Colin had left for Iraq the month before. We had our first water bill, which was a big issue. Colin started researching hydroponics and when he came home in April 2006, we built our first greenhouse, which was 30 feet by 60 feet. And during the building of that greenhouse and implementing the hydroponic growing organically, we started to have a lot of people wanting to know how we were doing it. We had never grown anything that wasn’t organic.
That October, we had Colin’s coming home party. There was a lot of pressure on him to reenlist, which was not ok with me. But I had to realize that the Marine Corps was just as much his family as I was. That was the moment that we created the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program. We wanted to show other people how we were doing it—so that they could start their own operations. We had our first veteran on the farm in July 2007.
KA: I do the marketing. As we get this program out there, people ask how they can help. And for us, it’s really about making sure that when the student graduates, they have employment and when they’re starting their business they have expertise. Our relationship begins on the day that student graduates. The Employee Community Fund has given scholarships for people to come through at a time when tuition assistance for our active-duty military is so difficult. So many have been amazing—Toro, the Semper Fi Fund, and the Veterans Valor Fund, and [veterans advocacy and assistance group] Disabled American Veterans—to help people come through the program so they can help start their businesses.
CA: For a company like Boeing and their Employee Community Fund, it’s an easy fit for them to support veterans’ issues—they’re in the defense industry. For a company like Whole Foods, it’s a little more of a difficult fit. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t want to help veterans. I think what our program did was give these folks a good way to support veterans, but it was something within their space, something they could understand.
EM: There’s something so compelling in your idea that speaks to America right now. The issue of veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder is routinely in the news. Colin, in an interview in 2010, you said the isolation and hard, physical labor of the farm work was therapeutic when you returned from Iraq.
CA: It’s claimed that PTSD is a byproduct of war—in some cases it is, but in many cases it’s a byproduct of what you do with the veterans after the war. We haven’t been very good about that. We have to do it with out-of-the-box thinking. Not every rifleman is going to want to be in a security company or work for the State Department. They want to have other opportunities and this is just one of those. I think that with agriculture, there’s a food movement in the U.S. right now, so this is the right timing for that. But also, the agriculture industry has been very strong over the last several years. Agriculture commodity prices have never been as high and the demand on agricultural commodities from America has never been as high either. So it’s kind of a tipping point for the food community and obviously with the need for reintegrating the war veterans, I think it tells a compelling story. But it’s this time in history.
EM: How are your alumni doing?
KA: They are doing amazing. We’ve had about 65 new farms pop up across the U.S. We have more and more people coming through the program who already had land and didn’t know what to do with it. We have people that have created products such as DANG!! Hot Sauce, Kaught Up Ketchup, and Fermented Harvest. In our course, it goes from seeds to market, and they build a business plan, which goes from concept to presentation. And the day they graduate, that’s when the real work begins.
CA: It’s about job placement, too. A guy can go out and start managing farms, such as our farm and plant manager Matt Hively, or like Justin Grimes, who’s actually starting his own farm now after completing an internship with us. He’s now managing a farm and converted it to hydroponic. The cool thing about these guys going out on their own is not only do they have a strong entrepreneurial base as leaders, they become job creators, which is big for today’s economy.
CA: I think the PTSD situation has stereotyped an entire generation of veterans, and it’s not the case that everyone suffers from PTSD. It is the case that you’re more than likely going to hire someone that’s extremely trainable, that’s going to be showing up on time, who knows how to be professional, who knows how to operate under tight deadlines, and tough conditions. And it’s probably somebody who’s a very good leader that can help take your company to its next stage of growth.
KA: When you have someone who’s just come back from being at war, it’s giving him or her opportunities to shine and to thrive that matters. Don’t give them the smallest job—give them a challenge. You’re going to need who they really are. When they’re out of that uniform, you don’t see all of their accomplishments. But if you give them the opportunity to take on a larger task, then you get to see them open up and shine and it’s good for all of us.