Combat To Compost: Soldiers Learn Organic Farming

Some veterans and active duty personnel are learning to navigate a new type of terrain. Their tough military training and attention to detail are proving to be assets as they learn the skills needed for organic farming.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

On a small farm in Southern California, a group of veterans and active duty Marines is learning about planting, harvesting and sustainable agriculture. The program, taught by one of their own, is meant to give them a place to heal and the skills to cultivate a new career.

Reporter Gloria Hillard has the story.

GLORIA HILLARD: Tucked away in these rolling green hills north of San Diego is a small organic farm called Archi's Acres. It's an avocado orchard peppered with wildflowers and hydroponic gardens of basil, kale, rainbow chard.

COLIN ARCHIPLEY: We have red leaf lettuce. So what we have up here, although in about a week's time, over here we'll have heirloom tomatoes.

HILLARD: Before becoming an organic farmer, Colin Archipley served three tours in Iraq as a Marine Corps infantry sergeant, and it's not surprising, perhaps, that he chose this particular patch of land.

The helicopters heard overhead are from Camp Pendleton, just over the hill from this 3-acre farm. Today, Archipley is training vets and active duty personnel returning to civilian life for careers in organic farming. It's not an easy job, he says, but veterans are up to the task.

ARCHIPLEY: We're a type of population that needs more than just a dollar. We need a purpose, and this is one way to give us purpose.

HILLARD: The six-week course called Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training has been approved by Camp Pendleton's Transition Assistance Program. One of the new students, veteran Ron Vaughn(ph) is taking great care to harvest a live bouquet of basil in one of the farm's greenhouses.

RON VAUGHN: You can plant this right in the water, and it will still keep growing.

HILLARD: The Marine sergeant did two tours in Iraq and was wounded in Fallujah. And the farm, Vaughn says, has given him a new sense of purpose.

VAUGHN: I went in the Marine Corps so I could serve my country, you know? Now that I've gotten out, guess what? I still want to serve, and you go small-scale organic farming, that is me being able to serve the community.

HILLARD: Vaughn was able to attend this program with a scholarship from the Farmer-Veteran Coalition. Michael O'Gorman is a longtime farmer and the organization's executive director.

MICHAEL O: And the more we work with the veterans and the more we work in this process, the more we understand that there's healing in being needed.

HILLARD: O'Gorman says his organization works with farmers across the country.

GORMAN: Our goal is to mobilize this entire community, then welcome with open arms the returning veterans and look to them for a source of new, young talent going into our industry.

HILLARD: One of those new farmers may be Cory Pollard. Growing up in San Diego, he enlisted in the Marine shortly after high school. He served three tours in Iraq as a rifleman. Today, he's cradling a seedling in his hands.

CORY POLLARD: Before I got here, I didn't know what chard was, didn't know what kale was, but, you know, nonetheless, I've been here and I never thought I would see myself farming.

HILLARD: Working alongside Pollard in the greenhouse is 26-year-old Carlos Rivera. Both men went to Camp Pendleton and ended up serving in Iraq together. After leaving the Marines, Rivera says he got a job in the city, but it stressed him out.

CARLOS RIVERA: This is different. You're working outdoors and working with other vets. And I have my own little garden out there in my patio where I live. And I love going out here.

HILLARD: He says it's his dream to one day have his own small farm, something like what he has found here.

RIVERA: The sounds of trees and the birds singing and leaves falling down.

HILLARD: Rivera has been working on the farm for a year. He says he's not only found the job he loves, but a certain peace of mind. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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