Brad Thill started gardening and planting trees as a way to relax after war.

A retired Army veteran with more than 14 deployments throughout the Eastern hemisphere, Thill calls horticulture therapeutic – a way to tamp down the anxiety and migraines that come with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries tied to combat.

These days, with help from several government grants and agencies like the Vocational Rehabilitation Services division of Iowa Workforce Development, growing and tending plants also has become a promising business.

Thill, who left the military to settle on family land near Algona, hopes to officially welcome customers next year to Farmer Sarge’s Orchard, his 3.5-acre property featuring apples, peaches, pears, cherries, apricots, and plums. Thill spent this past year earning praise through the sale of sweet corn, a variety of fruits, craft items, and freeze-dried ice creams and candies at nearby farmer’s markets. With luck, his 450 trees will be productive enough next year to welcome actual visitors to pick fruit on his property.

It will be the culmination of a lot of work and helpful support.

Trish Cady, rehabilitation counselor with Vocational Rehabilitation Services, said the division’s Self-Employment Program helped Thill purchase a large mower for his orchard, as well as time with marketing consultants who are helping design logos, packaging, and a website. Thill, who had already been receiving similar assistance from the U.S. Veterans Administration, had been developing his business for several years while working for a nearby Co-Op she said.

“He was very well-prepared, and we’re just adding to that,” Cady said.

The Vocational Rehabilitation Self-Employment program is designed to make work more accessible for people who have disabilities that may make it untenable for them to follow the constraints of a 9-to-5 job. For Thill, owning his own business means having the freedom to take time off when the migraines get too bad or if he has an appointment at the VA.

“The great thing is I can do all the stuff I need to do, and then If I need to take a nap, I can just go take a nap and come back and do the rest of the work later,” he said.

Thill currently is working on designs for bags, business cards, and 13 billboards pointing to “Farm Sarge’s Sweetcorn, Fruit, and Vegetables.” He’s trying to build up a stockpile of popular craft items, like the old propane tanks he turns into jack-o-lanterns. And he’s crossing his fingers, hoping he’ll soon be able to officially open something that already has received so much institutional and community support.

“Next year, we’re going to open it up for the public – as long as I don’t have any more of these late freezes,” he said. “I do want people to come and enjoy the day out there.”

For more information on the Self-employment Program, visit the Vocational Rehabilitation Services website.