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Veterans Nonprofit Gifted 120-Acres in Rochester for Education, Business Incubator

The Chronicle - 1/12/2019

Jan. 12--Deston Denniston stood on the edge of a 120-acre piece of property Wednesday afternoon, pointing to its various parts and rattling off the qualities of their soil. He spoke with the sort of precision honed by multiple years of permaculture experience.

Denniston is the executive director of VETS_CAFE, a nonprofit that helps veterans launch a career in agriculture, conservation, forestry or ecology; and the land outisde Rochester was recently donated to the nonprofit to bolster its work.

Specifically, the deed to the land was recorded on Dec. 14. Before that came about 10 months of feasibility studies and dialogue.

Located in a rural stretch outside Rochester in southern Thurston County, the property will play host to a bevy of educational opportunities and as a business incubator for veterans and other sponsored members as it's slowly developed and cultivated into something sustainable.

"I see hundreds of local veteran entrepreneurs with an incredibly broad range of skills working together to create a sustainable food system and local economy," said Denniston.

VETS_CAFE started as something much less formal. In 2012, Denniston found himself in Oregon City, Oregon, teaching a class on permaculture -- or the development of an agricultural ecosystem -- for veterans on a 7-acre farm. In the off-hours of the course, he and its members would often find themselves sitting at a campfire "as vets are wont to do," said Denniston, a veteran himself.

As they sat and talked, they created an acronym -- a hilariously long acronym that started out as something of a joke, but has since evolved.

"Veterans' Entrepreneurial Training and Studies in Conservation, Agriculture, Forestry and Ecology," he said. That name was mercifully shortened to VETS_CAFE, and became the name of the social side of the permaculture classes Denniston headed.

After more classes and campfire conversations, Denniston said he and his partners decided to launch their efforts to teach veterans the art and science of outdoor and agricultural work into a certified nonprofit, dubbed Veterans' Ecological Trades Collective.

As he worked on his master's degree, Denniston said, he became struck by the number of skilled veteran entrepreneurs struggling for work. Also during the same approximate timeframe, he began to construct the curriculum that would become his course.

Denniston said he and others involved were keen on getting some sort of parcel -- something in the ballpark of 10 to 20 acres -- to host classes and campouts.

The state's Department of Veterans' Affairs contacted him, asking if his organization would be interested in obtaining a 40-acre farm. As the conversation developed, the land -- donated by the Seattle-based Fremont Dock LLC -- morphed from 40 acres to 120 acres. A feasibility study on the land, which has sat derelict for a decade, found that there would be challenges in cultivating the place.

"But vets have seen worse," Denniston said.

There are invasive species that need to be controlled and dead wood that needs to be cleared away. But such work fits right in with the educational basis of the course, said Denniston, and will be used as learning experiences.

The next few years will be used to craft a master plan for the land and its use, he said. Currently, one of the more pressing issues is security. Thieves stole a communication station the vets had planned to use to produce agricultural podcasts. Gates and eco blocks have been pushed aside or pulled down. Installing proper fencing has become a priority -- and is made largely possible by a $5,000 donation from the Nisqually Indian Tribe.

But in the years that follow, the use for the land and the educational purposes it may fulfill are myriad -- from farming to livestock to agricultural infrastructure and more. Denniston said it will serve as a business incubator for veterans keen on a career in ecology.

"I'm really looking forward to mid-spring, when we've had a couple of good campouts, a couple of good work parties and are starting to settle into a routine," Denniston said.

Another permaculture course will begin in August, with a sliding price of $100 to $500 for veterans.

Since its inception, VETS_CAFE has worked with more than 400 veterans from multiple combat theaters. The organization currently has 18 members, said Denniston.

Donations toward VETS_CAFE can be given at its website, vets-cafe.com.

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