A business idea sprouted in Springdale by U.S. military veterans has earned the owners a $25,000 business grant.
Vet Veggies, a fresh vegetables concept, was one of three winners announced recently by national restaurant chain Bob Evans Farms. The award is part of the Ohio-based company’s Heroes to CEOs contest, a grant competition developed in partnership with The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit organization that empowers veterans who are adjusting to life at home.
Vet Veggies is owned by Alan Altom, Darryl Hill and Jerry Martin. Altom and Martin are military veterans. Hill is Martin’s son-in-law. Together, they launched the business in 2015 and grow a variety of leafy green vegetables and basil. They use equipment from Boston startup Freight Farms, which designs and manufactures retrofitted shipping containers into environmentally controlled hydroponic farms. That allows any business, person or community to grow fresh produce year round.
The Vet Veggies operation is on Martin’s property on West Gibbs Road near Lake Elmdale. The shipping containers measure 40 feet by 8 feet, and crops are harvested once a week.
“We’re producing between 500 and 600 heads of lettuce a week,” Martin said. “And we can do that year-round.”
Martin said his lifelong curiosity has led him to own numerous businesses. When he discovered Freight Farms, he thought he’d try another.
The mission of Vet Veggies is two-fold — starting a new business, but also be a resource to other veterans.
“I have five generations of combat veterans in my family,” Martin explained. “Going back to the Civil War. As a Vietnam War veteran, I know how hard it can be to transition back to life in a cubicle somewhere. And a lot of veterans aren’t interested in cubicles. I thought if I could create a brand that I could share with veterans anywhere and at no charge — the brand of Vet Veggies — that would be an entre for any [veteran] anywhere to enter their local market.”
Martin also said agriculture and farm business opportunities for transitioning veterans have become increasingly common in recent years, as the benefits become more apparent. Agriculture is more than just a way to grow food, he said, and farming is more than just a profession.
The farm can produce a little more than $100,000 in revenue annually. “And the margins are pretty good,” Altom said. “We have about 10 customers using our product, and about 10 more waiting to get it on their shelves and in their kitchens. We think it will continue to grow from there.”
Local companies who are using Vet Veggies’ butter lettuce and romaine lettuce include Mockingbird Kitchen, Mermaids, Jose’s and Harps Food Stores.
Martin said the Heroes to CEOs grant will help Vet Veggies expand operations. Included in that is developing the infrastructure to support replicating the business model to other veteran entrepreneurs.
Martin also said Vet Veggies is in the process of acquiring two more hydroponic farms from Freight Farms.
“We’ve got a demand we can’t meet right now, which is a great thing,” he said. “We have some folks that want our product and they are being patient.”