Defense Media Network

Back to the Land

For Colin and Karen Archipley, the three-acre plot they purchased in the hills north of San Diego was a compromise: Karen wanted to return to the Italian homeland of her late mother, and Colin wanted to stay in his native California. Through a friend, they found what Karen calls “our little piece of Tuscany,” complete with an avocado orchard, near the town of Valley Center.

They bought the property just before Colin, a decorated Marine Corps infantry sergeant, was preparing for this third and final deployment to Iraq – where he led his men of Lima Company 3/1 in some of the war’s fiercest urban combat in Fallujah and Haditha, Iraq. Shortly after arriving in Iraq, Colin got a taste of what it’s like to be a 21st century Marine. He went online to check his bank account, and discovered a poorly kept secret: The first month’s water bill on the property was $845.

“They always tell the wives,” Karen says, “don’t tell your husband anything that would upset him.”

That water bill, and Colin’s service in Iraq, became powerful influences: After returning from the war, he abandoned his former real estate career and began tending his avocado trees. He and Karen drilled a well. They built greenhouses and an elaborate hydroponic system that grew plants – basil was, and is, their mainstay – from a slurry of water and nutrients that recirculated through a network of plastic pipes. Their organic farm, Archi’s Acres, was born.

Archi's Acres (foreground) is a pro-American, pro-veteran, small-scale organic farm in Southern California. Photo courtesy of Archi's Acres

Healing the Wounds of War
Colin had returned to California with symptoms common among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans: mild brain trauma, headaches, sleep disturbances, and anxiety. He felt lucky to have a quiet place to heal and rediscover a sense of purpose – and he felt for the service members who weren’t so fortunate.

“I had a really, really good squad,” Colin says. “I just thought: If I had this same type of talent, the same people, outside the Marine Corps, there’s not anything we couldn’t do. But when you look at the statistics of veterans in the private sector, we have a fairly high failure rate. Karen and I just thought there’s something wrong, and there has to be a better way to tap into the skills of these military people.”

Today, Archi’s Acres is staffed by a handful of Navy and Marine Corps veterans, and the Archipleys conduct a training program, Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT), in cooperation with the local college, MiraCosta College, and the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) at Camp Pendleton. It’s an intensive six-week program, offering trainees instruction in hydroponics, drip/micro irrigation, soil biology, environmental control, and business development.

The VSAT program isn’t simply about training new farmers – though some participants go on to find work in agriculture – but also about creating entrepreneurs. The final outcome of the course is a business plan, presented to a panel of industry leaders and potential investors. The most recent VSAT course has already launched a hot sauce line for one of the participants, whose business plan attracted an investor.

“That’s really what we’re looking to do,” Colin says, “because we think, particularly on the enlisted side – there is huge emphasis in the Marine Corps on enlisted, small-unit leaders – these people will make not only great managers and supervisors, but great entrepreneurs. And that’s really what the nation needs right now, being that small businesses employ 50 percent of Americans.”

The first VSAT class this year with TORO Irrigation, laying down four types of drip irrigation. Instruction was given by Inge Bisconer of TORO, with attendees (from left) Mike Hanes, Michael De Alba, Matt Holzmann, Bisconer, Colin Archipley, Edgar Hercila, and Stephanie De Alba. Photo courtesy of Archi's Acres

A New Mission
So far, more than two dozen veterans have received training through the VSAT program, with the vast majority coming from Camp Pendleton. Despite its high profile and broad support, the VSAT program is likely to remain relatively modest, given the size of Archi’s Acres.

On his small farm, however, Colin Archipley is thinking big. Listening to him, it’s obvious he’s not some shell-shocked veteran who retreated to the quiet of his avocado grove. He’s an intense taskmaster, maybe with a soft spot for basil plants, who has found a new mission.

“We invest a million dollars, on average, on everybody we deploy,” he says. “Yet when those same people come home, there are 300,000 who are homeless, and above 20 percent who are unemployed. That’s a poor long-term investment.”

With the U.S. Department of Agriculture warning that two-thirds of American growers are reaching retirement age, the era of the American family farm is at a crossroads. According to Colin, sustainable approaches and technologies have the potential to draw a new generation to the land. “When we teach these guys hydroponics and greenhouse technology, it’s kind of like introducing a PlayStation® to these age-old techniques, and they really enjoy it.”

Military veterans, says Colin, are a perfect fit for sustainable agriculture – a concept inextricably linked to national security. “If you look at a map of instability throughout the world and then you look at a map of food shortages or food hunger, those maps are almost the same,” he says. “The No. 1 use of water in the United States is energy production. So to be energy independent, we have to use less water for agriculture while producing more food for the 10 billion people of tomorrow.”

Despite his grand vision, it is the lives of individual veterans that lie at the heart of Colin’s passion for his farm and the VSAT program – a passion shared by his wife, Karen. “When Colin started working with our property, he found it really gratifying,” she says. “It’s something that was greater than ourselves. His friends, people he served with, started re-enlisting – not because they wanted to, but because they couldn’t feed their families. We felt that was not fair. We wanted to reach back out to the military and say: ‘You know what? There’s another way you can do this.’”


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...