Veterans to Farmers, a nonprofit organization that Marine veteran Buck Adams launched to help other vets develop skills that would enable them to go into business for themselves, is poised to take farming to the next level.
Adams, 44, is in negotiations to purchase a 50-acre parcel in the metro area that he will turn into an “agro-park” with an 18-acre greenhouse, five acres indoors devoted to salmon aquaculture and 300 employees — all military veterans.
The $100 million project would be the first of its kind in the nation.
“We’re past the conceptual stage,” Adams said. “We have met with funders and hope to break ground in 2016.”
The agro-park would expand on aeroponic and hydroponic production, systems where crops that include lettuce and other salad greens, tomatoes, squash, berries and herbs are grown year-round in a controlled environment that uses no soil and 80 percent less water to produce a yield roughly 10 times greater than a traditional farm would.
Harvests aren’t threatened by drought or other weather-related disasters. It’s also a way to keep food production local as farmland increasingly gives way to commercial and residential development, thus upping demand for food imported from other countries.
If all goes well, Adams says, he will start as many as five similar facilities across the nation.
Growing is in Adams’ genes.
His family ranched in Texas until Adams was 14. Then they moved to Arkansas to raise chickens and run a construction company.
Adams joined the Marines in 1989 and was a corporal with the security forces stationed in the Philippines. In 1991, while he was awaiting orders for a Middle East deployment, Mount Pinatubo erupted and the Marines were dispatched to help with rescue operations and evacuations from the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.
When Adams’ tour ended in 1993, he felt the pull of his agricultural roots — in particular, sustainable farming, locally grown crops and ways to decrease U.S. dependence on imports.
In mulling his own future, he was struck by the extent to which many of his fellow veterans were having a tough time re-entering civilian life.
Issues that included post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression made it hard for them to land meaningful employment, as revealed in a survey that Prudential conducted in cooperation with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in 2011-2012.
A mix of house greens at Dirtless Farms.
A mix of house greens at Dirtless Farms.
Ninety-eight percent of the 1,845 respondents said they had experienced at least one service-related challenge in entering or re-entering the civilian workforce, and nearly one in four vets surveyed believed that employers weren’t open to hiring them because they were disabled or carried “too much baggage.”
Seven years ago, after moving to Colorado, Adams founded Veterans to Farmers and established a greenhouse in Lakewood.
Veterans began learning all facets of aeroponic and hydroponic gardening — hands-on experience with seedlings to harvest to distribution — and developed entrepreneurial skills that enabled them to go into business for themselves.
It didn’t take long, he added, for the vets to realize that the greenhouse also was a decompression chamber, a place where they could forget their worries.
“We weren’t teaching therapeutic gardening, but they were talking, connecting, taking pride in what they were doing. Lives were transforming.”
Sales and marketing, perhaps surprisingly, turned out to be skills that play a large part in improving a vet’s mental health, Adams said. “One of our guys almost cried because a (restaurant) client was so happy with what he had grown. Here you’ve gone from destroying the enemy to creating something a lot of people want.”
They want to know where their food comes from and are willing to pay a little more for it.
Today, Veterans to Farmers has expanded to include partnerships with Denver Botanic Gardens and Colorado State University. Denver Botanic Gardens is letting the organization use a six-acre site at its Chatfield location for outdoor-gardening training while CSU offers online and hands-on course work in which veterans can learn about controlled-environment agriculture and small-scale vegetable production. A grant from Kaiser Permanente allows it to pay veterans a weekly stipend; it has also received grants from The Denver Foundation and Veterans Passport to Hope.
Several of Adams’ graduates have taken leadership positions with similar programs in other states; others have gone into agricultural engineering.
But it’s not for everyone.
“I’ve had guys tell me the greenhouse experience was fun and helped improve their mental health, but that they were going to work in other fields.”
One of Adams’ success stories is Evan Premer, 36, chief executive officer and co-owner of Dirtless Farms, a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse at 5445 W. Evans Ave.
Premer, whose 15 years in the Army included serving as an infantryman and aviation door gunner in Iraq, found Veterans to Farmers in 2013.
After completing his training, Premer and his mother, Esther, a master gardener, started Aero Farm, a 1,500-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse in Lakewood.
For two and a half years they sold their tomatoes, salad greens and herbs to such restaurants as Linger and Beast + Bottle before taking on two more partners and changing the company name to Dirtless Farms.
In February, Dirtless Farms moved to the former Elliott Gardens greenhouse in Denver. It is a partner of Veterans to Farmers, with six trainees who work alongside 50 other veterans to grow arugula, bok choy, kale, sorrel and other fresh greens for restaurants.
Navy veteran Daryl Goode is one of the trainees.
An engineer who had served in the Middle East, Goode, a former Chicago resident, had a knack for traditional gardening and during the five months it took for a spot to open up for him with Veterans to Farmers, he grew vegetables in his home garden and donated much of his harvest to SAME Cafe and local food banks.
Now he’s concentrating on the nuts and bolts of opening his own greenhouse. “I’m learning about cost of materials, setting up equipment and growth projections.”
Joanne Davidson: 303-809-1314, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/joannedavidson
VETERANS TO FARMERS continues to seek individual donations as well as grants and corporate gifts. Information at veteranstofarmers.org. Contributions that will enable it to continue “training our protectors to become providers” can be sent to Dirtless Farms, 5445 W. Evans Ave., Denver, CO, 80227.