A group of former soldiers are helping other veterans find new purpose after their defence service — through farming.
“When you leave the army you have to leave your image at the same time and develop a new image,” said army veteran Angelo Leonardi.
“Some of us joined when we were really young so you can be a young adult, 25 to 30 years old, and lose that image that you built and you have to reintroduce yourself to the world, which can be really hard.”
Angelo left the army in 2011 after five years of service and three deployments.
The transition back to civilian life has been made easier by pursuing his calling for farming.
“My family had a deep farming history in south-east Queensland and also in north Queensland, in horticulture,” Mr Leonardi said.
“Post-army there’s not a lot of options for us in the career space.”
Alongside Mr Leonardi is his older brother Salvatore, who spent 20 years working in the mining industry, and another ex-army mate Cody Dennis.
They joined forces five years ago, pooling their cash to buy their first farm.
Cherry Creek Estate is near Blackbutt, in Queensland’s south Burnett, a farming operation that includes about 300 hectares of managed avocado orchards, a packing shed, and an oil processing plant.
“Angelo is a visionary,” said Mr Dennis.
“I am the little-picture guy. I’m the details — pragmatic, more realistic of what’s happening here right now, at this very moment.”
“Sammy [Salvatore], he’s the workhorse. Doesn’t matter if it’s big picture or little picture he just gets it done.”
Three friends’ dream
In their first year, and on their first farm, it was just the three boys and about 2,000 avocado trees.
“We harvested 72 tonnes and we just did it ourselves in between work and other jobs. We wanted to just learn how to do it,” Angelo Leonardi said.
Fast forward a few years and they have now acquired half a dozen farms.
This season they are on track to harvest 1,000 tonnes of fruit.
The three men hold around an 80 per cent share of the operation, with the remaining 20 per cent split across a group of other veterans.
“For me the draw was being able to put the best parts of my life to date together,” Salvatore said.
“Farming and army, brawn and brain, and put it together to come up with a good result for us all.”
This year, for the first time, Cherry Creek Estate has also been processing 100 per cent Australian avocado oil and in doing so, saving huge amounts of fruit from landfill.
Before they started processing the oil, tonnes of their lower-grade fruit had no viable market.
“It’s not as if we invented it,” Mr Dennis said.
“It’s been done here in Australia before, but I just don’t think the climate was right.”
Securing future opportunity
A recent trade trip to Hong Kong saw them secure an export deal into parts of Asia.
They are hoping to produce 250,000 litres of oil during the 2024 growing period.
They are also expanding into growing soil-less ginger.
“We have this core value that you should always be harvesting something to keep your cash flow positive,” Salvatore said.
Setting up the grow bags the ginger is planted in is very labour intensive, but unlike many other farms that struggle when it comes to sourcing extra labour, Cherry Creek Estate has troops to task.
“We can send the SOS out to all the guys and they come running just like when we were in the army,” Salvatore said.
“So it’s awesome to have the support in those critical times.
“It’s good for everyone. Everyone likes to come out to the farm – it’s peaceful, it’s quiet, and it helps most people with their mental state as well,” he said.
“That way they can relax a little bit but still put in a decent amount of work.”
There are big plans for the future of this farm, including a goal to have 60,000 avocado trees in the ground before 2030.
For Angelo Leonardi it is about showing there is life to be lived after the military.
“You don’t have to put the uniform on to still display the values,” he said.
“Mateship, camaraderie, teamwork, all these types of things, is something that can still be a part of what you do every day.”
For Salvatore Leonardi, the resident civilian, it’s about building something worth passing on to the next generation.
“I would like to have something to give to my kids,” he said.
“It’s the famous Australian dream — everyone wants that white picket fence, this one’s just got a bit bigger fence.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.
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