Naperville woman growing organic farm idea to help veterans
It starts with food.
Veronica Porter wants to grow it, organically, in Naperville, and eventually create a distribution hub where other organic farmers can sell it.
And then the idea grows.
Veterans Victory Farm, the name for the business she's planning to start later this year, would employ military members returning from service with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. It would offer jobs to people who have hidden disabilities such as deafness or high-functioning autism.
But it all comes down to food.
"I really feel strongly that this is the generation we need to take our food system back," said Porter, who runs a small organic cafe called Aunt V's inside LA Fitness on Freedom Drive in Naperville. "People really want food that is local and organic and seasonal."
Specialty crops such as asparagus, blueberries, raspberries, onions, tomatoes, squashes, brussels sprouts, peppers, celery and lettuce all can be grown in Naperville, where Porter said she is in the final stages of negotiations for a location to establish the farm.
Porter said she aims to start growing this spring, employing up to 50 people because there's much more to farming than "pulling weeds," she said.
Veterans Victory Farm is a combination of Porter's past and her passions.
She grew up in Naperville across from a farm on Bauer Road, and her father helped run her grandfather's farm in town.
"I didn't know it at the time, but they were organic farmers by today's standards," said Porter, 56. "I caught the end of an era where you gathered and grew and preserved your foods."
The importance of knowing where food is grown stuck with Porter, who now says she won't eat tomatoes unless she grew them or knows who did.
"I'm just a real vegetable snob," she said.
More people are starting to think like Porter as the organic and local food movements gain steam, said Jim Slama, president of FamilyFarmed, an Oak Park-based nonprofit that works to strengthen regional food systems.
"For a long time, food was very industrialized. I think this is a backlash to that industrialization," Slama said. "People want less chemicals. They want more connection and trust in what their food comes from."
It will take Porter -- or any organic farm operator -- three years to earn certification that the farm meets U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards, Slama said. That allows time for any pesticides previously used on the soil to clear.
"Organic has to go down to the soil," Porter said. "If the soil isn't organic, the plant won't be organic."
Porter has a culinary license and teaches cooking classes at two specialty shops in Naperville -- Liam Brex and Twisted Olive. She also is married to a veteran who injured his back during a military helicopter accident, so she's sensitive to the needs of veterans with disabilities. And her 24-year-old son suffered a traumatic brain injury in a nonmilitary accident, so she knows the difficulties of returning to work after such a trauma.
"My first focus is going to be on working with veterans to make it a veterans farm, but I also want to include working with young men and women who are very high-functioning with hidden disabilities," Porter said.
Leaders from the Naperville American Legion and Judd Kendall VFW Post 3873 support the idea as one way to help veterans returning with traumatic injuries or mental disorders, said Mike Barbour, a veteran and senior advocate for Naperville Township.
"One of the things that I think is terribly important is that the veterans in those situations need to feel as though they're doing something good for society. They want to give back," Barbour said. "It will start to give them confidence in their own abilities."
Once Porter finalizes the location, she plans to sell stock in the company to gain seed money and let community members share in the farm's growth. Like the organic food market itself, Porter said the farm has high potential for profit.
"Clearly this is an idea whose time has come," Slama said. "For this farm to be popping up or moving toward creation is a great thing, I think, and it's very symbolic of the fact that people want to connect with their food."
Buyers could come in the form of Naperville residents who love farmers markets or restaurants that want to serve produce grown right in town.
"They're always looking for local farmers to support," Barbour said about Naperville restaurateurs. "When you throw the cause in there, I think it'll be a win-win for everybody."
Naperville Park District Executive Director Ray McGury, who plans to serve on an advisory board Porter will create for the farm, said he supports the idea because fitness and health enthusiasts are willing to pay a little more for organic foods. Plus, he said the creation of a new organic farm in a former agricultural city is an interesting twist in history.
"It's kind of a reversal that in 2015 we're talking about maintaining a piece of land to actually farm off it," McGury said. "And I think that's pretty cool."