Veterans Employment Base Camp and Organic Garden

"My intention with this project is not to make money. I don't see myself taking a salary. I truly enjoy what I'm doing here. When additional money comes in, I prefer to use it to pay another vet."

— Lovay Wallace-Singleton, veteran and founder

Providing Veterans with Job Opportunities
at an Organic Garden

A solar-powered organic garden in North Carolina is bringing rehabilitation and jobs to veterans.

The full name of Lovay Wallace-Singleton's project is Veterans Employment Base Camp and Organic Garden. It's located in the city of New Bern in North Carolina's Inner Banks region. New Bern is the birthplace of Pepsi Cola. New Bern's population has nearly doubled since 1990 because it's near Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, and it's a place where vets like to retire to enjoy the mild climate. There are also many homeless and disabled veterans in the area.

The project provides paid internships and job skills training for unemployed and low-income veterans, as well as rehabilitation therapy (through gardening!) for disabled veterans.

Lovay says that the whole enterprise was designed from the beginning to be financially and environmentally sustainable. The garden's organic produce will be sold at local farmers' markets to fund project activities. The 1.2-acre garden utilizes organic and permaculture gardening principles. Nothing is wasted.

Helping Veterans Is a Personal Mission

Lovay Wallace-Singleton is herself a veteran who retired on military disability from a 20-year career as an air traffic controller for the U.S. Navy. She told me that North Carolina is a natural fit for her project because the two largest industries there are agriculture and military.

She loves gardening and feels that horticulture therapy has been a key part of her own continuing recovery from her disability. "With our homeless vet situation, and so many disabled vets coming back, I just asked myself: How can I make a dent in this situation?"

Sustainability Through Social Entrepeneurship

Lovay's project got started with a $2,000 grant. "It was a struggle to get going, but it has gotten easier," she says. In November 2014, the project received a $99,000 grant from the USDA to build the garden. It also secured a one-dollar-per-year lease from the city to house the garden in a city park.

Sales of garden produce will be the key to the project's sustainability. Lovay explains, "When we have our first crop, we will sell our organic produce at the farmers' market to pay the $10-per-hour internships for our veterans. We hope to get 500 pounds of produce out of every five raised organic beds in each growing season. We have 46 beds. We plan to grow organic tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes, onions, garlic, shallots, peas, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, figs, and grapes."

Lovay is an unpaid volunteer executive director. She says, "My intention with this project is not to make money. I don't see myself taking a salary. I truly enjoy what I'm doing here. When additional money comes in, I prefer to use it to pay another vet."

Off the Grid and Environmentally Sustainable

The Veterans Organic Garden is employing organic and permaculture gardening principles. The garden has an integrated system, modeled on nature, in which nothing is wasted. This includes "hoop house" greenhouses that use passive ventilation and insulation for heating and cooling, collecting and storing rainwater for irrigating the garden, work sheds that are powered by solar panels, solar-powered security, and ground lighting throughout the garden. 

The garden is completely energy independent and off the grid. The next thing on its wish list is a solar refrigerator.

Solar-Powered Technology and Job Skills Training

The Veterans Organic Garden has laptops that are mainly used to train veteran interns in employment skills. The veterans learn basic computer skills, including how to use email, write resumes, and do employment research. Veterans will also get some training on how to check their military benefits and search for housing information. IT training will be done in cooperation with a local community college.

The garden and training coordinator, Deanna Hull, uses a tablet from TechSoup's refurbished computers program to plan and run the garden. She uses software called AgSquared. The Wi-Fi Internet connection and all the devices are, of course, powered by solar energy.

Job Placement and Support

Lovay has lined up resources for her disabled veterans after their five-month internships. The project has a direct partnership with the employment office, which will tailor jobs for the vets in accordance with their goals. Lovay encourages participants to take other jobs during their internships.

She will also help them set up their own gardens and sell their produce at the farmers' market to supplement their disability payments. The project has a partnership with Home Depot, which may result in more jobs for program participants.

Some Ideas Are Too Good to Stay in One Place

Even though the project just broke ground in April of 2014 and is just starting its first gardening class, several funders have lined up to support the work, and it already has a request to duplicate the program in Wilmington, North Carolina. Some ideas are just too good to stay in one place.

This post originally appeared on the TechSoup Blog. It was written by Jim Lynch, director, green technology at TechSoup.