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Veterans to Farmers Shows Promise as it Gears Up to Build Premiere Greenhouse

Evan Premer tends to greenhouse plants.

is the veteran's largest purchaser.

Veteran Evan Premer enjoys gardening for its peaceful process.

Veterans to Farmers will teach military veterans how to farm in urban environments, with its flagship facility coming soon to the Curtis Park/Five Points area.

With aeroponics, Premer can pull the entire root out with his produce.

One local entrepreneur has found an unusual way to support a historically neglected demographic while tapping into the "eat local" food movement. Veterans to Farmers will teach military veterans how to farm in urban environments, with its flagship greenhouse coming soon to the Curtis Park/Five Points area.
Maybe you've heard a story like Evan Premer's before. When the 29-year-old veteran returned from Iraq in 2007, he floundered in a down economy, trying to support his growing family while coping with posttraumatic stress disorder. Sadly, there aren't too many accessible resources available for guys like Premer, who work hard and have been through a lot.   
"We are very concerned about the lack of access to employment for veterans, particularly veterans suffering from PTSD," says Patrick Horvath, Director of Economic Opportunity for The Denver Foundation. Lately, Horvath's team has taken interest in Veterans to Farmers, a grassroots program designed to address these concerns by training young veterans in greenhouse farming. But the organization, scheduled to break ground on its first official greenhouse this spring, didn't start out as a formal work-readiness program.
In 2009, Marine Corps veteran Buck Adams started a small, local business that eventually evolved into Circle Fresh Farms, a network of Front Range greenhouse farms wholesaling organic tomatoes. "Buck quickly grew his 13,000-square-foot business into about five acres," says Veterans to Farmers Program Director Jessica George. 
Back then, Adams didn't know much about horticulture therapy. But he noticed positive changes in himself, which he credited to gardening. So Adams resolved to hire fellow veterans whenever the need for new employees arose. 
"Applicants came flooding in," says George, "and Adams was floored by how much response he got from veterans." So, the entrepreneur left Circle Fresh Farms, which still grows tomatoes and hydroponic lettuces and began a new venture that would offer veterans greenhouse training and a path to business ownership. 
The program Veteran Evan Premer enjoys gardening for its peaceful process.
That path is Veterans to Farmers, a free 12-week-long intensive program teaching post-9/11 veterans a new generation of greenhouse farming. The program taps into aeroponic technology, a highly efficient and space-saving system of vertical growing towers requiring comparatively less water than hydroponic greenhouse farming and traditional agriculture. The magic is in the roots, which are suspended in air and never submerged or oversaturated in precious water. 
With this technique comes the opportunity for a higher yield. "You can grow about ten times the yield in a tenth of the space with aeroponics, plus you use 90 percent less water," George succinctly says.
"This is the next generation for greenhouse farming," she continues, noting that, especially in regions with short growing seasons, greenhouse farming affords a way to eat locally year-round. George, who also serves on the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council, says, "Of all industrialized nations, the United States is dead last in greenhouse farming." 
Once launched, Adams' training program will accommodate about 15 students per session, or a total of 60 veterans annually, who will receive a living stipend during training. "The program will cover everything from greenhouse construction to plant biology and how to grow using vertical towers," says George. There will also be information on sales, marketing and securing loans.
It's thanks to Adams' informal version of this initiative that Premer's story ends much happier than many. The veteran got in touch with Adams in 2011 and, sometime around October, "got into one of the greenhouses that Buck started back in 2009." Premer, whose lineage is fraught with farmers, quickly realized he was thriving in the greenhouse. 
Last year, when Premer was ready to start his own business, Adams helped him acquire a small, 1,500-square-foot greenhouse. "We finished building that in the spring of 2013," Premer recalls. "During that winter I developed my business plan with Buck and chased some micro-loans." The greenhouse was 90 percent privately funded, and it has seen a successful first year.
It's this sort of success story, in fact, that's attracted The Denver Foundation. "We began developing a relationship with Buck last year, at which point he described Veterans to Farmers, and we invited him to apply for a grant," says Horvath. Adams' organization was initially awarded a $50,000 contingent grant that would be released once Veterans to Farmers raised the remaining funds needed to build its training greenhouse. 
The organization's struggled to raise those funds though. So, The Denver Foundation converted some of the grant monies into immediately accessible cash last October. There are a handful of reasons why Horvath's group thinks Veterans to Farmers shows promise. 
Growing local Veterans to Farmers will teach military veterans how to farm in urban environments, with its flagship facility coming soon to the Curtis Park/Five Points area.
"This isn't just a salad operation," says Horvath. "It's a local business tapping into a local economy, taking advantage of the extremely fast-growing and energetic field of urban agriculture." 
Undoubtedly, there's a market for high quality, local, fresh food, and lately there's been lots of national buzz surrounding greenhouse agriculture, which is especially useful in Colorado. "We are becoming a food-insecure nation, and greenhouse farming is an easy way to take back our food," adds George, contemplating rising fuel costs and the realities of global shipping. 
Premer has made a decent living selling his produce, primarily to local restaurants. "If you've eaten at Linger over the last year, then you've probably tasted our stuff," says Premer. The beloved Highlands foodie hotspot is the veteran's largest purchaser.
"When we deliver to Linger, we deliver a product that is still living," Premer says. You see, with aeroponics, Premer can pull the entire root out with his produce. What's more, there isn't an ounce of packaging waste; Premer delivers produce in collapsible crates where produce is transferred directly into the restaurant's bins.  
Other customer include Beast + Bottle and Terra Bistro in Vail. Premer is also involved with a number of local events; most recently, he accompanied Linger Chef Daniel Asher to the Sonnenalp in Vail. 
Also interesting to folks at The Denver Foundation is the "potential to create a web of recession-proof economic opportunity," says Horvath about Adams' prerogative to help willing veterans launch their own businesses upon completion of his training program.
"We are mainly a training program," says George. "But, we don't want it to end there." Employment outlook, she says, is bright for veterans trained in aeroponics farming. And a long-term goal of Adams' is the development of greenhouse cooperatives, or "hyper-local CSAs", as George calls them. 
"We've been talking with Colorado developers about incorporating food production into their community development plans," George says. If this took off, new CSA greenhouses would be built into forthcoming community centers, and graduated veterans would manage those spaces. The goal would be community supported agriculture arrangements within the specific apartment communities, whereby growers would sell their harvest to the apartment's residents and others within a three-mile radius of the greenhouse. 
"We call it salad bowl CSA," George says of the non-synthetic and pesticide-free produce these greenhouses would sell. "We'd be producing stuff everyone is familiar with -- mirco-greens, hearty greens, and fun lettuces, as well as peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, and strawberries, for example." And, George reminds, production would happen year-round. 
Gardening as therapy
Another interesting component to the program involves horticulture therapy. "Buck has shown us documentation about the therapeutic nature of gardening," says Horvath. "This is an environment where veterans can thrive after returning from service." 
Premer knows firsthand the truth behind that. "Plants need care like children when they are growing because they have vascular systems similar to ours," explains the gardener and father. "Watching a plant develop as it grows is like watching a child."
He also talks about the incredible tactile and sensory experiences associated with greenhouse gardening. "When you go into a greenhouse and all of the towers are running, it sounds like you are in a rainforest, like somebody is shaking one of those rain sticks you'd get at the zoo," Premer says. "It is quiet, it's warm, it's full of fresh oxygen -- it's peaceful," he sighs. Gardening, for him, is much more than a stable business. It's a way to decompress and process what he's been through.  
One major barrier for Veterans to Farmers could be the steep startup costs associated with its cutting-edge form of farming. "Like any new technology, aeroponic greenhouse gardening is expensive right now," says George. "But what we have found with Evan's greenhouse is that the energy costs are really low. It's not a cheap technology, but we show a profit margin that makes sense for investors to want to invest." 
The square footage for greenhouses ranges from 1,500 to 10,000 square feet, the latter of which could hold 400 towers and is the size of the national training center George and her organization are currently working to fund and build. Veterans to Farmers has completed its final site selection process in the Curtis Park/Five Points area with hopes of breaking ground this spring. 
The training center would also serve as a community amenity. Produce would be sold directly to consumers through a CSA model, and the greenhouse would be available for tours, farm dinners, and other gatherings. Private donations for the project are accepted on the Veterans to Farmers website
This story was produced in partnership with The Denver Foundation as part of a series on giving and philanthropy. Read more stories from this series here.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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