The aquaponics greenhouse at Dahlia Campus for Health & Well-Being was already a staple source for healthy food for the Northeast Park Hill community, but now it’s doing even more. Dahlia Campus recently started working with a program called Veterans to Farmers (VTF) to help some of Denver’s military veterans transition back to civilian life.
What is Veterans to Farmers?
In 2009, Marine Corps veteran Buck Adams started Circle Fresh Farms, a 12,000 square foot greenhouse in Colorado. Within just three years, Circle Fresh Farms expanded and became the largest organic greenhouse grower in the state. Soon, the popularity of his farm collective grew and he began hiring veterans to help work and learn with him. Because of that growth and popularity, Buck partnered with Richard Murphy and together they created Veterans to Farmers. The organization trains veterans in a variety of farming methods to help them transition from protectors to providers.
“It’s all about connecting with veterans that are looking to start their transition back into civilian life,” says Loki Jones, aquaponics coordinator at the Dahlia Campus greenhouse. “[VTF] aims to help them fill in the pieces of that often-complex puzzle by educating and empowering them to be able to grow food for themselves, their families and ultimately their community.”
Recently, VTF partnered with the Mental Health Center of Denver and other Denver metro nonprofits and businesses. Organizations such as Rebel Farms, the Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farm and the Aquaponic Source all work with VTF.
How Does It Work?
An aquaponic greenhouse system works by introducing fish and a specific kind of bacteria to a recirculating water system. Like with all animals, fish produce waste after they eat, and that waste contains ammonia. The bacteria convert ammonia into nitrate, which plants need to grow. The plants filter the water, which keeps it clean and the fish healthy. This system allows a wide variety of plants to grow year-round within a greenhouse. As an added benefit, it requires less water than outdoor operations and less nutrient inputs than hydroponic production methods.
Starting last year, three classes of veterans learned about this system through both classroom learning and hands-on training. As a result of last year’s success, this year’s program will expand their education to the business side of farming. They will get involved in the farmers market, food box program and selling the greenhouse’s produce to local restaurants.
For Loki, the social, economic and environmental effects of teaming up to produce food within an aquaponic system make him passionate about training veterans at the Dahlia Campus’s greenhouse.
“I think that the success of the Mental Health Center of Denver’s partnership with VTF is likely to stem from its ability to empower veterans by providing them with a supportive environment where they can learn a sustainable way of producing food that can then serve as a bridge that reconnects them with their local community,” he says.