Chicago farmer, veteran honored for inspiration
A retired Marine, who turned a patch of contaminated Chicago dirt into a place to grow beautiful sunflowers, was named the 2024 Illinois Farmer Veteran of the Year.
Steve Archer was called inspirational at the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Illinois annual meeting at the Everything Local Conference in Springfield Jan. 17. The annual event was organized and sponsored by the Illinois Specialty Growers Association, Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Farmers Market Association.
The disabled veteran stood proudly with his walking stick in one hand and holding the metal sign that recognizes his achievements. He shared the honor with his father, Leslie Archer, an Army veteran who had served in Germany when the Berlin Wall was being built in 1961.
Last year, Steve lost his brother and a son, Sgt. Leslie Archer III, who served in Vietnam. He died of post-traumatic stress disorder, his brother said.
“The most important thing is, I need to find a purpose,” Steve Archer explained in a written statement that was read at the ceremony. “We wrote a blank check to our country. We will go where you send us,” he said. The challenge came of how to continue to serve when they returned home, he explained.
Steve Archer found his purpose in restoring family land and volunteer teaching at a Montessori school. He teaches children not to be afraid of bees. “You are not a flower,” he tells them. And, that eggs come from chickens, not Whole Foods.
“That is my purpose,” he said.
The first thing he grew, at age 11, was a pumpkin from seed in the harsh soil of his backyard in Chicago.
The father of four, including twins, continues to grow things at Archer Urban Farms and to raise honeybees. Building on the work ethic and morals he said his family taught him, he grows nutrient rich food to give away, and to teach children about food.
Archer, who holds a degree in English and has a heart for teaching, taught children in a nearby Montessori school about farming with chickens, a donkey and a horse. He volunteers when his health allowed it.
“I found my tribe,” he said.
The eighth of an acre of Chicago land Archer farms was first farmed by his great uncle. Stories about his father’s childhood memories inspired Steve.
At first, he couldn’t grow anything on the contaminated Chicago soil.
He told FarmWeek, he is a believer that you don’t “lose” from an experience when you didn’t win – “you learn.”
One option was to restore the soil slowly, building it up by adding organic matter over time. But through a grant, and the help of his sister, and others, he was able to remove the top eight inches of topsoil. It was next covered with Mirafi, a cloth engineered as a barrier to prevent chemicals from seeping water up and water to pass down through. Wood chips and topsoil, also donated, were layered on to make the urban land productive again.
“All things fell into place,” he said. Even with the challenge of drought, he produced sunflowers, and grew sweet potatoes to give away.
Zaelon Rohwedder, a Navy veteran who made the award presentation, announced that in recognition of the loss of the horse at the Montessori school, he is donating two pasture pigs from his farm, Shortlegs & Eggs in Altamont. He will deliver the gift to Archer and train him and the children how to care for the pigs.
At the event, other opportunities for veterans were highlighted including beginning farmer training, links to help connect farmers looking for land with landowners looking for them, farm incubators, mental health resources and AgrAbility to help farmers with injuries or illness do tasks easier.