Army veteran Benoit finds new purpose in hydroponic production
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
CULPEPER, Va. (Nov. 14, 2017) — Mark Benoit was digging protective trenches on the top of a mountain in Afghanistan when he saw another man digging not very far away — and assumed the worst.
Digging usually meant roadside bombs or gunfire would follow.
But, as Benoit watched, he realized the man’s shovel was creating something entirely different: An irrigation ditch for his farm.
“I’m looking down at him and he opens up the canal and water starts to flood in the furrows in his field,” Benoit said. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever — in the middle of this warzone, this picture of peace.”
Not long after that, Benoit left the Afghanistan war zone where he had been working for the past three years, first for the U.S. Army and then as a contractor, returning home to sow the seeds of an entirely new career in agriculture.
Now, as the head grower at BrightFarms’ Capital Greenhouses in Culpeper, Va., which grows hydroponic tomatoes and greens — in nutrient-enriched water rather than soil — for Ahold stores in the Washington, D.C., area, Benoit can see how his military career prepared him for this one.
“It’s fast-paced, you’re always on your feet and you’re responsible for a high dollar amount of produce,” Benoit, 31, said of his current job. “And that’s not much different from the military. Whether you’re painting a door or out on patrol, you always carry this sense of responsibility with you.”
Benoit sees so much of his military experience parlaying into food production that he’d like to help other veterans make the switch as well. He’s now helping BrightFarms build an apprentice grower program that aims to attract military veterans as well as others interested in greenhouse growing.
In addition to the greenhouses in Culpeper County, Va., BrightFarms has facilities in Bucks County, Pa., and Rochelle, Ill., outside of Chicago. The company plans to build 15 to 20 greenhouses in the next five years in various locations across the country, so the apprentice program is also intended to train a workforce to run that growing fleet.
Benoit has already added an apprentice at the Elkwood, Va., location, Kyle Zanderhoof, who was previously in the U.S. Air Force, and plans to bring on more.
“He has hit the ground running,” said Benoit. The program “is open to any qualified individuals, but we strongly encourage veterans to apply for it.”
Benoit said he wished programs like this were available when he was struggling to make the transition to work on the home front. He did not have a good history with higher education, having lost interest in the subject matter before completing his first attempt at a degree. But he had better luck staying the course this time and earned a four-year degree in agriculture from State University of New York at Cobleskill.
Benoit was recruited to BrightFarms from a flower growing operation in New Jersey. He said the startup, whose vice president of operations also has served in the military, hasn’t necessarily tried to hire veterans, but “they just happened to apply for the jobs.”
“That led to a larger conversation in the company about how there is definitely value in finding veterans for these positions,” he said.
Growing salad greens, herbs and tomatoes without the help of soil — with the help of cutting-edge technology — is challenging enough that Benoit has found it consuming in the best possible way. Like being deployed, being a part of a business that is pushing the envelope of what’s possible for food production allows Benoit to become a part of a broader mission.
He was recently named one of Greenhouse Production News’ top 40 under 40 employees in the sector.
The work at BrightFarms has also been a tonic for a tired soldier who had spent three years working in a warzone. And Benoit thinks it could be just as helpful for other veterans who are both recovering and ready to give back in other ways.
“There is definitely something therapeutic about greenhouse growing,” he said, “and it has the potential to help out other veterans, too.”
Those interested in applying for an apprenticeship can email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Apprentice Grower Program” in the subject line.
Easton, MD 21601-8925