Veteran Community Farms

by J.F. Pirro
2/12/2014

       

        Architect Brian Hillestad feels a connection to veterans that drove him to help them solve their almost epidemic homelessness and aid in their transition back into society. Hillestad's father served in the Vietnam era. His father-in-law fought in the Lebanon conflict. Two uncles also served: one in Vietnam and the other in Korea. A Wisconsin native, Hillestad learned about agriculture while doing chores on relatives' farms.

        Agriculture and the military
        Hillestad's soon-to-be-launched growing project, Veteran Community Farms (VCF, www.veterancommunityfarms.org), is designed to teach veterans job skills and keep them employed. Convinced of the commercial and therapeutic values of horticultural therapy and aquaponics, he'll soon have veterans raising fish and growing herbs, fruits and vegetables year-round in greenhouses.

        "We're looking to give veterans a chance to grow, literally and figuratively, and to give them a sense of purpose while also working in a tranquil environment," Hillestad says.

        Some people voiced concerns about the possibility of growing year-round in Hillestad's location in Exton, Pa. Fortunately, a trip to the Midwest and training sessions in 2011 with Will Allen's Growing Power while in Milwaukee for Farm Aid allayed those worries. All VCF's growing will be done with aquaponics. Hillestad began testing the aquaponics on a small scale in a backyard greenhouse, and his concept for VCF took off.

        As an architect, he's been devoted to developing creative solutions for clients. Many of his jobs revolve around determining the best use of space. There's that same challenge in a greenhouse. VCF is a balance between his career as an architect and his agricultural background.

        Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (the raising of fish) and hydroponics (growing without soil). First developed by the Aztecs, it's the science of growing plants with water that is naturally fertilized by fish. The fish waste is mostly ammonia. With the aid of two different types of bacteria located in a biofilter, the ammonia is changed to nitrites and then into nitrates. Once the conversion is complete, the nitrate solution flows into growing beds that have plants to filter the water. The recirculation allows for more plants to be grown in a smaller area while using approximately one-tenth the water of traditional farming.

        The best news: Hillestad believes veterans can generate income from what they produce at VCF sites. There are two big projects in the works. One effort is a partnership with the Riverbend Environmental Education Center in Gladwyne, Pa. The second will bring aquaponics to the Coatesville (Pa.) VA Medical Center, which includes a 95-bed facility for homeless vets.

        According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (www.nchv.org), 13 percent of the homeless adult population are veterans, and 20 percent of the male homeless population are veterans. Among homeless veterans, 51 percent have disabilities, 50 percent have serious mental illnesses and 70 percent have substance abuse problems. "We see and hear the need out there," Hillestad says.

        Up and running
        VCF's first fully functional greenhouse, Hillestad's initial research and development facility, is a 250-square-foot greenhouse in his backyard. Powered by 87 tilapia in a 600-gallon tank, he's growing tomatoes, kale, four kinds of lettuce, herbs and microgreens. He's done extensive test marketing, and once the operation expands, the produce will be earmarked for restaurants, local farmers' markets and more.

        Hillestad is committed to having veterans participate in the project, adding to the numbers as the various locations become operational. Currently, there are a couple of Vietnam veterans involved. One of them is Pat Fiore.
Fiore grew up on a diverse, 30-acre family farm in Pennsylvania. Specializing in growing mushrooms, the family also had 30 head of Black Angus. Once he connected with Hillestad, the two initially thought of accomplishing their goal with a dairy farm and retail store, and then they discovered their joint interest in aquaponics. Fiore had a cousin who utilized aquaponics in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

        Fiore also brings logistical experience; he has ties to the shipping industry. "If we can produce $2 million [worth] of greens, we can ship them," he says.

        Nearly 65, Fiore served in the U.S. Army with a medevac unit and is trying to find ways to honor fellow veterans. "I want to give all I can give," he says. "There's just a pride that I've found in helping my fellow man. If we do this right, we could make it really big. There are no limits."

        Currently, Fiore is working for the AARP Foundation in West Palm Beach, Fla., but he wants to work with VCF seven days a week. He's thrilled by the possibilities of creating something that "can really grow. It's noble to put food on the table, to feed others," he says.

        A growing plan
        The next big move comes in the form of a 4,380-square-foot greenhouse at the Riverbend Center. Set to break ground in February or March of 2014, the project's fundraising goals were on track for December deadlines: VCF set out to raise $100,000 to hire staff and operate the facility, and Riverbend sought $600,000 to build the greenhouse and pave access to it.

        Production and sales are just around the corner. With two months of construction time budgeted in, the greenhouse should be operational by June or July.

        "Most field production begins to end in August and September," Hillestad notes. "Others start to taper off, but we will be taking off with fresh greens, herbs and fish that will feed right into our [target] markets."

        "We have the markets," says Fiore, who believes that aquaponics is fast becoming what contour plowing was in the 1940s and 1950s. "It saved farming. It's what aquaponics could do now, and we have a great business plan. We have it structured."

        After that first major facility is up and running, next on the docket is the reopening and refurbishing of a 2,000-square-foot greenhouse that's been sitting idle the last few years on the site of the Coatesville VA Medical Center. The veterans who live on campus will help to operate the greenhouse, but the work will also be part of their therapy.
Other states around the country, including Michigan, North Dakota and California, have been contacting VCF.

        "They're after our model, and we're very concerned with building a sustainable model," Hillestad says. "It's not just about growing, but also about financial sustainability and employment, so we're taking the time to build a base. We have the markets, so it'll grow great if we grow it right. We're making sure that we grow it right and market it right. Now, after three years of work, it's ready for fruition."

        He says a lot of top chefs are picky about what goes on their menus. It's easy to get good produce in the spring and summer, but in fall and winter it's difficult.

        "To walk into a greenhouse and pick 10 heads of lettuce goes a long way," Hillestad says. "Plus, there are no trucking costs, no fuel costs and no price volatility. We want to offer the same consistent prices, or close to it, for year-round menus. We want to level the playing field."

        Marketing an advantage
        VCF is growing locally, and its produce will be grown by veterans, which should pack a marketing punch. "We think others will really respond to that," Hillestad says.

        There are similarities between agricultural and military work: Work goes on rain or shine; there are no days off; the workforce is responsible for getting the best results despite not always having the best equipment; days are long; workers are dedicated; and there's a job to be done by following orders and responding to discipline.

        "It's a world they're used to thriving in," Hillestad says. "But to plant, harvest and feed others food is a gratifying process, and in a lot of military work you don't always get to see the process from beginning to end, so this will give our veterans a sense of accomplishment."

        He adds, "We're not trying to make every veteran a farmer. There's also a need for some to maintain the systems, to make deliveries, and opportunities in sales and marketing. It's not all about growing, but about providing skill sets for a number of careers."

        VCF has begun negotiations with colleges and universities to initiate co-op opportunities for veterans to acquire credits. For example, Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., has begun a veteran farming program, and it could send participants to a VCF site. "It could be a lab for them," Hillestad explains.

         "Generally, a lot of money is given to veterans' causes," Fiore says. "The more we make of this, the more veterans we'll involve. We can help fix their problems. Everyone likes to think of a positive cause like helping veterans, but there's a lot of fraud, and a lot of vets who are taken advantage of, but we're real--certifiably veteran--and everyone wants to throw $2 in a bucket if it has to do with veterans."
 
        The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.
 
        Photos courtesy of Brian Hillestad.