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At Ease Orchard

Teaching veterans how to bee
Program provides veterans post-service opportunities

“At ease.”

That’s the command soldiers receive to relax and the last one they’re given before retiring from duty. For Joe Ricker, At Ease Orchard was the perfect name for the orchard and beekeeping business he launched after retiring from the military.

As Ricker prepared to transition to civilian life after his time in the U.S. Army supporting special operations as a logistician, he researched ways to spend his time in retirement. As a person who has always been driven to help others, he was looking for an opportunity that would allow him to spend time with his family and give back to the community that gave so much to him.

After traveling the world during his 30 years in the Army, the Chicago native settled outside Indianapolis in Wilkinson. He restored a farmhouse and started an apple orchard, where his trees help feed his bees.

His orchard and apiary offer a learning environment for former military personnel, first responders, and their families who have suffered traumatic on-the-job injuries or other disabilities. Ricker’s goal is to show them how to use some of their military skills to create a new career with bees.

“Beekeeping is very task oriented. You have to stay focused and block everything else out,” Ricker said. “It’s good for veterans because you can be by yourself and it’s a little daring. I knew some of the guys I deployed with came back and were beekeepers. So I started checking it out and started taking workshops.”

Ricker is not from a traditional farm family and his journey to start his business is an integral part of his experience. While preparing for post-military life, Ricker discovered several training programs and grants that helped him begin the business.

He set up At Ease Orchard as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to support his veteran support program to help veterans. It is designed to help improve social connections, strengthen physical health and decrease the symptoms of depression and PTSD. Ricker researches and applies for grants to fund the program. He partners with several like-minded organizations to help achieve his goal of engaging retired military and first responders.

One program he's partnered with is AgrAbility, a USDA program through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It aims to enhance the quality of life for farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers with disabilities. Ricker works with Bill Field, professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University, and the AgrAbility program to consult on veteran-related programs and provide education and assistance.

Ricker also works through Heroes to Hives, a beekeeping education program run by veterans for veterans. This program works with entomologists and master beekeepers to provide hands-on training. At the end of the educational sessions with Heroes to Hive, veterans are given a hive to use in their own business from At Ease Orchard. They also are certified to work in commercial beekeeping operations or become master beekeepers.

Through the several programs he works with, Ricker will give out 40 hives this year, with a goal of increasing the number each year. He offers programs for veterans to come to the orchard and work with hives. This experience helps veterans determine if they and their family will be comfortable working around the bees and hives.

Ricker donates the honey derived from his hives. This growing season will be the first to produce a crop from the apple orchard and Ricker plans to have veterans out to pick the fruit, which he also will donate.

Another goal is helping veterans have the opportunity to market their honey. Special regulations must be met to sell honey commercially, and the programs Ricker works with like Indiana AgVets help provide the training and resources to meet those requirements.

“Life is about experiences and sometimes you just need that kick to get you over the edge,” Ricker said.

Fortunately, Ricker is there to give veterans the kick needed to give them the lifelong skill of beekeeping.

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