Kevin Lanzi sits quietly next to a 6-ft. tall tomato plant heavily laden with clusters of ripening fruit. He takes his time, checking the plant for signs of stress or disease. It looks good. Soon these tomatoes will be on their way to a Whole Foods Market somewhere in Colorado, not too far away.
The only sound is the unobtrusive hum of the fans that keep air moving through the greenhouse. It’s a far cry from the oil fields of Iraq where the smoke, noise and chaos of battle were an almost every day experience for the young ex-marine, who did two tours of duty, ending in 2004.
After serving his country, Kevin returned home with shattered knees and a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Still not fully recovered from the experience of war, he continues to receive counseling at nearby Veterans Administration hospital. “It’s real peaceful in the greenhouse,” he says with a smile.
In Colorado, the Veterans to Farmers (VTF) project—a newly formed non-profit, founded by ex-marine and local food advocate Buck Adams—aims to transform veterans (like Kevin and others returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) into farmers and entrepreneurs skilled in the art and science of controlled environment agriculture.
The city of Denver is receptive to the idea. At a recent VTF fundraiser, Denver mayor Michael B. Hancock said, “We have the power to secure locally grown food and give veterans the skills and training to really achieve it. We are growing a sustainable fresh food economy.”
Like everything else, it comes down to money and Buck is seeking ways to fund more training for the many veterans who have expressed interest in the program. For its part, the city is pitching in on the Denver Seeds Initiative to build a greenhouse on an available lot in the heart of the city. The greenhouse will provide fresh produce for local residents and serve as a training facility for veterans who join the program.
For now, VTF works with two or three vets at a time to provide on-the-job training in the hydroponic production of food crops like as tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce at Circle Fresh Farms, a company formed by Buck and his business partner, John Nicholas. They have built and staffed a growing number of greenhouses in Colorado from Pueblo to Longmont, all of which are part of the Front-Range Food Shed Alliance. Circle Fresh is one of the few hydroponic food producers in the United States to have obtained organic certification. Once they complete their training, veterans will be skilled in the organic production methods pioneered by Circle Fresh.
Veterans to Farmers and Circle Fresh are not just giving ex-warriors the education and skills needed to be indoor farm laborers. Trainees are mentored by master growers, who teach the methods and technology of indoor growing (including nutrient formulation, fluid delivery systems, integrated pest management, plant biology, and basic and advanced agricultural practices).
An extended apprenticeship program includes a business and finance component, as well as the education needed to prepare the participants for all aspects of greenhouse management. Upon completion of the program, veterans are qualified controlled-environment agriculture professionals.
Adam Cutlett is a former aircraft maintenance technician who planned to make a career in the air force. His plans were cut short when he was seriously injured on the job. After discharge, he tried graphic design, worked for the census bureau for a while and did a few other odd jobs, but he had always been interested in farming.
“Food, water and shelter,” he explains, “it doesn’t get more basic than that.” After searching for opportunities to farm in a number of states, he heard about Veterans to Farmers and contacted Buck by email.
Although VTF couldn’t offer any guarantees at the time since the program was just getting under way, Buck invited Adam to come to Colorado to work in a greenhouse. Adam ended up camping out in his pickup truck for three weeks next to the Nicholas Farms greenhouse outside of Pueblo while he worked and situated himself in Colorado.
Since then, the program has been refined with the assistance of the staff of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. Now, with his initial training complete and with a solid practical experience base to build on, Adam is ready for bigger things.
With the financial assistance of an investor, he is now manager and part owner of a new 7,000-sq.-ft. production greenhouse with plans to add an additional 20,000 sq. ft. Business is good and there seems to be no limit to how much organic produce the local markets can handle.
With over a million vets unemployed and more to come home soon as the war in Afghanistan winds down, VTF is one of a number of efforts that has sprung up in recent years to help war fighters return to a productive peacetime role. Another organization, the Farmer-Veteran Coalition—a collaborative effort to place veterans in farming—operates out of Davis, California. Buck estimates that at least 400 veterans could be placed in programs like these and eventually become agricultural entrepreneurs in the local food movement over the next few years.
That number could easily increase into the thousands around the nation with the support of local communities (like in Denver), and as the market for locally grown organic produce expands.
The transition from combat to civilian life can be tough for many vets. It’s especially difficult for those who return disabled and unable to perform many of the few jobs that are available. Buck, who knows what it’s like, is confident he can help.
He likes to say he is “training our protectors to become providers.” Perhaps Isaiah was more right than he ever could have imagined when he said, “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”