Tucked away in an industrial park in Lewisville, Texas, of all places, is a little greenhouse. From the outside looking in, it really doesn’t seem like much, but when you walk inside, it’s tantamount to a Willy-Wonka version of produce and technology.
I had the privilege to meet with T.C. Beckett, otherwise known as “The Chief,” from his Navy days. T.C. Beckett moved to Texas in 1995. Originally, from Indiana, T.C. grew up on a farm there, so growing wholesome, organic food is important to him.
We had a chance to meet at the Greenhouse, and T.C. filled me in on the reason Veterans Produce was started.
The Back Story
Back in 2015, week after week, T.C. saw a homeless guy camped out near a plant nursery. “One November night, it was cold and wet, and I saw this guy sitting there and I wanted to see if he needed anything. Come to find out, he was a Vietnam Army Vet. It just made me mad. Just because I’m retired, doesn’t mean I stop caring for my brothers in arms. It’s just a kinship that never will die.”
This man “Tony” had been staying in a shelter, and somebody stole his money and ID. So, without that he was on the street. T.C. knew he had to do something. Building small homes was an expense that he didn’t think he could take on, but even more than shelter, the immediate need for homeless Veterans was food. At the time, there were no programs that he could find that specifically took on the challenge of meeting the needs of Veteran hunger.
There are 37,352 homeless Veterans as of February 2021 and that is only half of the number believed to be homeless.
About Veterans Produce
T.C., along with fellow Veterans Kenny Smith (USN), Jeremy Chio (USMC), and Chris Schweitzer (USAF) make up the team at Veterans Produce.
The vision and long-term goal behind Veterans Produce is to eliminate Veteran hunger due to homelessness and food insecurity by feeding them healthy, organic food and teaching them how to grow their own food.
“Veterans face many challenges; hunger should not be one of them.”
After doing some research, T.C. settled on using Aquaponics as the growing system for the greenhouse and has since transitioned most of their growing using Hydroponics.
Aquaponics & Hydroponics – How It Works
So, a quick breakdown of how Aquaponics and Hydroponics works:
Hydroponics – Plants grown without soil. Plant seeds are bedded in spun wool that allows the seedling to take root. Once the plant roots are established, they will be continuously submerged into a rich solution of nutrients and water (Nutrient Film Technique).
Aquaponics – is a hybrid of hydroponics and aquaculture. Unlike hydroponics where nutrients must be added to the water, aquaponics utilizes the same structure using live fish in a tank. The nutrient rich water produced by fish and their byproducts create the perfect source of plant food.
The plant seeds are set in a base of spun wool because it is PH neutral. The temperature is regulated through the greenhouse effect and also has a large cooling system that helps maintain the perfect 70-80 degrees needed to keep the plants thriving and healthy 365 days a year. As we moved into the hydroponic area of the greenhouse, the lettuce and strawberry plants were housed in vinyl downspout extensions, lined up in a row. To say the plants were enormous and absolutely beautiful is an understatement.
“The benefit of using water based growing hydroponically is that we use 90% less water. We can grow 800 plants with just 50 gallons of water, and they will grow 30% faster because the nutrients are constantly replenishing the roots,” T.C. said.
Not only does this system of growing save water, but it also takes just thirty days from seedling to harvest. It also produces 8-10 times more food per square foot, year-round. Even more impressive, the produce is not only organic, but it contains 46% more nutrients than what we find in our grocery stores.
Currently, Veterans Produce harvests 40 lbs. of Lettuce per month. That is approximately 160 servings of salad per month.
By years end, Veterans Produce hopes to build a second greenhouse that will be 800 square feet. This will double the amount of produce that can be grown and harvested in any given month. And that means more Veterans will be fed.
T.C. looked down on a bracelet he wears that reads “if not me, then who?” Already, they are replicating this system with other Veteran organizations. He said he is working with veteran organizations in the San Antonio and Houston areas to replicate, on a much bigger scale, what they are doing here in North Texas. In addition, he’s working with a local Veterans ranch who built a tiny home community for homeless female Vets. Not only will the greenhouse they’re building provide healthy food for the residents, but it will also give the ranch a source of income. “They will be able to sell up to 80% of their produce at local markets and restaurants. In fact, they already have a waiting list,” he said.
Nevertheless, T.C would like to see this go National. “We are looking for other Veteran organizations that want to feed other Veterans. We will teach them how to duplicate what we are doing, we’ll give them the build plans, and we’ll provide remote support and training.”
*This story was first published in the SUMMER 2021 issue of ©AT EASE! Veterans Magazine. All Rights Reserved.