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How soldiers into farmers grow

A new trade enterprise is offering local vets a shot at agricultural entrepreneurship using an innovative business model that its creators say will eventually be self-sustaining, able to cede land and graduate a new generation of farmers every five to seven years.

Veterans are invited to apply for membership in the Veterans Ecological Trade Collective (VETC), a small business incubator that includes free lifetime access to campgrounds, a fishing pond, hiking trails, wildcrafting programs, community gardens, and more.

Qualifications for membership are simply to be a veteran of military service or be sponsored by one, and to obtain a Permaculture Design Certificate from a course led by a PINA (or other approved) professional association of Permaculture instructors.

The essential prerequisite for the VETSCAFE incubator is a two-week, 80-hour intensive Permaculture Design course in Rochester, Washington from August 16 to September 1.

“As climate change increases the severity of weather and alters microclimates and growing seasons in our region,” says Army veteran and VETC Board President Patricia Marienthal, “it becomes clear that a one-size-fits-all answer to farming reduces productivity. Permaculture accounts for the specific challenges and features of every piece of land and deals with each aspect in a way that optimizes production.”

Following the course, members can work with Enterprise for Equity’s Agripreneur and qualify to open a business at the equity site incubator. Applicants submit a business plan which is vetted by the stewardship committee. If approved, the applying member will receive up to $25,000 in startup funding. If accepted, the applicant becomes a site operator and member of the stewardship committee.

Plans for an incubator were sparked when Fremont Docks LLC donated 120 acres to VETC. Stewardship committee members Marienthal and Deston Dennison agreed that whatever they created would give veterans working the land a chance to eventually become landowners. In five to seven years VETC will, working with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, South of the Sound Community Farmland Trust, and other valued partners, have a mechanism of transferring most of the property (60 – 90 acres) to the Stewardship Committee Members. VETC will, by that time, have secured new property, and be engaged in repeating the process with a new cadre of farmers.

“Access to land is the primary obstacle to aspiring farmers. Despite local resolutions, codes, and ordinances, we are still losing farmland and farmers in the South Sound. Farm wages have been stagnant for 30 years,” says Deston Denniston, an Army veteran who holds a Masters in Agricultural Science from Washington State University. Denniston is a graduate of The Evergreen State College at Tacoma and is co-founder Executive Director of VETC.

“Thurston County farms are in trouble, and when farms are in trouble, everyone is in trouble,” Denniston said, urging veterans to help reverse that trend with membership in the new collective.

Penny Dex served the US Army from 2004-2008. She is now a veterans advocate and VETC Board President. She can be reached at 503-422-7361. Register for VETSCAFE no later than August 9 at info@vetscafe.org.

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