Veterans nonprofit given 120 acres in Rochester for education, business incubator

Deston Denniston, executive director of VETS-CAFE, stands on a donated 120-acre plot of land near Rochester and discusses the lay of the land.
Deston Denniston, executive director of VETS-CAFE, stands on a donated 120-acre plot of land near Rochester and discusses the lay of the land. cneuenschwander@chronline.com

Deston Denniston stands on the edge of a 120-acre piece of property, pointing to its various parts and rattling off the qualities of their soil. He speaks with precision honed by 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 outside Rochester now belongs to the nonprofit.

The land was deeded to the nonprofit Dec. 14, after 10 months of feasibility studies and dialogue.

Located in a rural stretch outside Rochester in southern Thurston County, the property will host a bevy of educational opportunities and serv as a business incubator for veterans and other sponsored members as it’s 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,” Denniston said.

VETS-CAFE started as something much less formal. In 2012, Denniston was 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 talked, they created an acronym – a 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 time, 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, 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 possible by a $5,000 donation from the Nisqually Indian Tribe.

But down the road, the land can be used for farming, livestock, 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. Learn more at vets-cafe.com.