Sustainable Agriculture Institute Arms Returning Veterans with Tools to Become Farmers of the Future

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Colin and Karen Archipley, the co-founders of Archi’s Acres and Archi’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (AISA). Photo Courtesy of Archi’s Acres.

Returning military often find themselves struggling to return to normality after serving overseas. Colin Archipley, co-owner of Archi’s Acres in Escondido, CA knows exactly how they feel. He served three tours of duty during the Iraq War that began in 2003. Between his second and third deployment, Colin, along with his wife Karen, bought an inefficiently run avocado farm. Besides starting their own very successful living basil hydroponics farm on the site, the empathetic couple created a sustainable agriculture training center called Archi’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (AISA) to help ease the transition of service members from military to civilian life. The courses offered at the institute are open to civilians as well as veterans giving everyone a way to serve their local community while building a sustainable business that will support their family.

The AISA learning center is based in Valley Center, California, near San Diego, and offers its students instruction in everything from sustainable agribusiness and farming production methods to business development and planning during a six-week course on founders’ Colin and Karen Archipley’s farmland.

Teaching veterans to farm was the decided goal for the Archipleys, because they themselves were able to make a living growing basil on their three-acre farm.

“We literally created our training as a way that Colin could continue to serve,” Karen says, adding that Colin wanted to go on another tour of duty.

“I’ll tell you, it was selfish,” Karen says. “I didn’t want my husband to re-enlist, period, but out of something selfish we get to be apart of people’s lives in the coolest way.”

Now in partnership with Cal Poly Pomona, students who participate in the six-week course receive 17 college credits. Since 2010, approximately 450 students have graduated from Archi’s Institute. Class sizes generally range from between 10 to 25 people with multiple sessions offered throughout the year.

Karen says initially Veterans Affairs patients were assigned to the program for compensated work therapy and then the Archipleys partnered with higher education starting in 2010. Those who are serving on active duty can take the course and use the GI Bill or pay out of pocket to fund the course, Karen says.

“If someone is active duty, they can take our class while on active duty before they separate from the military and that is really exciting,” Karen says. “Having said that, we’ve had civilians in every class since day one.”

In addition to learning about soils and growing methods, the course also teaches marketing and how to take advantage of investment and low interest loan opportunities so that graduates can sustain their farm operations.

“Our opinion is that sustainability is not only taking care of ground, the trees, the water, the lakes, everything like that, it’s actually being able to pay your bills and to live a comfortable lifestyle,” Karen says.

In embracing sustainability, Karen says Archi’s Institute does not use chemicals on its crops. It also emphasizes water techniques and teaches hydroponics, even offering a certification in the practice that uses water and nutrients rather than soil to grow crops.

“Our grow medium is water,” Karen says. “So whether you’re on soil or you’re on water or you’re on coco fiber — which is container production and we do that, too — we buy the same nutrients that you do for the land,”

Students use greenhouse labs to plant and harvest.

“In those student labs, they plant and they harvest and it is not about how much food did they get from that crop,” she says. “It is mostly about how much they know about it. They actually learn to build their own small system because that way they can do that at home.”

Karen says the most important part of the course is after the students graduate.

“That’s when they need us is when they graduate and they’re looking for work, or they’re trying to set up their farm or they’re looking for buyers,” Karen says.

She says many graduates go on to launch their own organic farming operations while others may work for other farms, become consultants, or work in sales.

One graduate, Jason Smith, took over an abandoned building in Alaska to grow organic produce. He operates the farm, Alaska Natural Organics, which combats the challenges of Alaska’s short growing seasons by using hydroponics.

Alumni business partners Justin LeBlanc and Matt Huneycutt have gone on to create a business that sells climate controlled, hydroponic FarmBoxes that enables would-be farmers to grow a variety of greens for eventual sale to local restaurants and at farmers’ markets.

Karen says the majority of the 13 students in the most recent class, which graduated on Nov. 17, want to become organic farmers.

She notes that alongside helping veterans acquire agricultural skills they can use, the Archipley’s goal is to create more farmers.

“It’s a labor of love and we’re really proud of our graduates, and our vision is to reinvigorate the family farm throughout America,” Karen says.

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