A Veteran’s Journey from Battlefield to Farmfield
By Dulanie Ellis | Photos By Ground Operations 1
Update September 8, 2015: Veteran Steve Acheson and his team were awarded a USDA grant that will pay a training stipend for two veterans next season. They were also approved for a Farmer Veteran Coalition Fellowship and the AgraAbility program to receive $50,000 of farm equipment at their Madison, WI farm where they employ vets to farm and have a CSA. Congratulations!
The military and farming have a lot in common. They both demand everything you’ve got … and then some. The divide between the vision and the reality can be wide. You have to have commitment and resourcefulness beyond measure. Neither have been an easy path for Steve Acheson, Army veteran and founder of Peacefully Organic Produce, a 45-member CSA just outside of Madison.
Steve was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened. By 18, he was in the Army, where he scored the highest in his class. Ultimately, he served as personal security for a colonel and drove a Humvee on the heaviest improvised explosive device (I.E.D.) roads in Iraq, bagging more than 400 missions in 11 months. He dodged innumerable I.E.D.s and credits his survival to good equipment, strategy and extreme luck — until an accident with a Humvee crushed vertebrae, requiring surgeries laced with months of prescription drugs and subsequent withdrawals each time.
Steve needed a change. Leaving the Army, he pursued degrees in both engineering and renewable energy, but the marketplace wasn’t hiring. His family roots were in organic dairy farming. He could feel the land calling him and a search found his current farm, where he was able to take over the lease.
Peacefully Organic Produce was launched with the help of two key people. His partner, Steph Kruegar, a microbiologist who works for the CDC, was the first to say, “Do what you want to do!” and then backed the farm’s first line of credit. Now there’s a partner!
The other anchor is his best friend and field manager, Todd Dennis. Todd’s a Navy veteran, having served as a nuclear sub mechanic, with double degrees in engineering. He’s the kind of guy who knows how to get things done with quiet persistence.
Just as important as the food production, for Steve, is to provide a safe haven for other veterans who’ve been in the front lines of the war zone and need a place like the farm to hang out with other vets, do some satisfying work and re-assimilate into a redefined “normal” life.
When the team took over the lease on their farm, they had no running water, but legions of weeds. In the last year, they’ve managed to resurrect the 45-member CSA that had been neglected, along with the land. Peacefully Organic Produce (POP) now sells at the V.A. Hospital’s market day, in front of a butcher’s shop, the local baker and delivers shares to a pre-school. (And it’s still year one!)
They were thrilled to get their organic certification recently. An organic farmer makes his investment of time and effort in the soil, which is the nutrient bank for our plants. Like many farmers, however, the elephant in the room is that he doesn’t own the land and has no assurance that he will have continued access long-term to pay back on that investment.
When asked what he really wants to do, he replies that he simply wants to make his living as a farmer, without having insurmountable debt, and to continue offering other veterans a sanctuary. They are hoping to double or even triple the number of CSA shares for next season to meet their goals.
How does he measure success? Every Wednesday, he drops off boxes that feed 40 families. That feels good. Satisfying. Next year, they will have a satellite drop off for new members at the V.A. Hospital, the doctors and nurses. Most of all, success is measured in the healing and team effort of the vets, the sense of community that is growing alongside the greens.
The restorative work that’s being done at Peacefully Organic Produce is similar to other veteran-led farms around the country that are championed in an award-winning documentary film, Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields. A growing network of combat veterans are transitioning into organic farming, sustainable ranching and artisan food production. A national label, Homegrown by Heroes will be rolling out this year.