Meet the Farmers Employing People with Disabilities

This interview was originally published on Springable.com.

This interview is the second in a two-part series. Read the beginning of Greg and Maya's story here!

What happened after you ended your fight in the special education sector? 

We started out wanting to find a safer home for our son and a simpler life for our family. We lived in a row house right off of a busy street in D.C. We couldn't leave either of our kids outside for long, and we didn't have much of a backyard to leave them outside in. We couldn't easily transfer our son between car and house without worrying about him bolting into traffic. There was garbage all over the sidewalks, which he was happy to play with or eat. If he got lost, we had no idea where to look, or if he'd survive the traffic.

Greg is a realtor, so he could look at as many homes as he had time for. We just kept moving westward. We'd find McMansions on tiny pieces of land, or shacks on beautiful pieces of land. We got pickier and pickier until we settled on a set of rules about what the house needed to have. We eventually found a fixer-upper house on a peaceful twenty-four acres. We really had no plan to use the land for farming when we first signed the papers. We were really thinking about the privacy our son could have to scream, jump, run, and generally be weird without the judgement or annoyance of neighbors.

We came up with the idea of farming when we went out to dinner in Shepardstown, WV, shortly after closing on the house. After advocating so loudly on behalf of both our son and special education students in D.C. for several years, it felt strange to suddenly turn the volume down. We felt like we should do something with all that land (in reality to most farmers, twenty-four acres is a tiny slice of land). We also knew that this home would probably be a "forever home" for our son, and we wanted a place where he could have his own little community of peers, where no one was judged and everyone was free to be weird, quirky, autistic, you name it.

We honestly thought that the idea of a farm that trained and employed people with intellectual disabilities was a brilliant stroke of genius. It later turned out that many other people had had the same idea. There are, in fact, other farms out there like ours. This is, of course, not a problem. The more employers out there who are for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD), the better. There's such a huge need for that, and Greg and I, of course, cannot employ them all, especially given that we still have to raise our own family and work other jobs. We're not exactly going to corner the market, and we have no desire to. We simply want to do something meaningful with the life we find ourselves with. And we want to tell the world that these kids with disabilities will become adults with disabilities who will likely lead long lives. Obviously, they need something constructive and meaningful to do with those long lives.

And in case you're wondering—no—I had zero experience with farming. I had volunteered a few times at a community garden at the National Arboretum in D.C. I had grown a zucchini (maybe two) in our "yard." That's it. But I am pretty good at learning stuff quickly (I did the same thing with photography seven years ago). So I found classes to take, books to read, conferences to attend, YouTube videos to watch, and discovered how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) feeds information to anybody who is interested via their Extension Agent program. I spent one year figuring out how to plant seeds, manage weeds (to the extent possible), and how to harvest. When you have a lot of land and seeds, something's gonna grow! We gave away or donated nearly everything I grew in that half acre garden that first year. By January of the second year, we were ready to start our non-profit.

How did you originally find employees to work the farm? What has it been like training them to perform tasks? How did/do you train them to learn to grow and take care of produce?
Our growers come to us through transition programs in local schools, contractors (such as Didlake, Inc.) with the State who search for employment or training programs for their young clients, and through eager parents who have heard about our work in the media. Our growers have a range of disabilities, including autism, dyslexia, developmental delays, learning disabilities, and mental illness. The seasonal employment we offer on our farm works well for our growers who are returning to school and vocational programs in the fall.

A typical day on the farm begins with a meeting among the growers, the Job Coach, and the Farm Manager. We create a to-do list for the day, based on what needs to be planted, harvested, weeded, and more. We assign tasks based on each grower’s particular abilities and interests (i.e., some people are more detailed oriented and prefer weeding or hunting for ripe vegetables, while others prefer larger-scale jobs such as mowing). For new tasks, we may walk the grower over to the location where the work is to be done and show them exactly which type of vegetables to harvest, or which plants are weeds that must be removed. For growers that have become confident and capable at completing tasks repeatedly, we then put them “in charge” of that task, and leave them alone to complete it, as we would any typical employee. The Job Coach makes her rounds, checking in on those growers who can mostly work independently, but may need some guidance to stay on task, and working side-by-side with growers who may need a bit more support to complete the task correctly, or who simply need some companionship on an emotional day.

We encourage our growers to advocate for themselves, which can mean telling us that they need a water break; that they need us to explain or model a task differently so that they understand more clearly; communicating that they can’t come in to work due to another commitment; or deciding how to order their assigned tasks during their work day. By encouraging self-advocacy and independent decision-making among our growers, and by expecting them to come to the farm on-time and complete their work, our growers sharpen the skills they will need to work anywhere. In fact, that is one of our guiding principles: to teach and encourage habits, social skills, and behaviors that our growers can use in any work setting—not just on our farm.

What are the employees relationships like outside of work? Do they have camaraderie?
That is a work in progress. Friendships have started on the farm, but people's disabilities can often get in the way of simple relationships. I will say that we have succeeded in creating a new kind of family or "tribe" right here on the farm. We accept everyone, no matter what their personal quirks, or disabilities. In fact, we (Greg and I) often remark that everyone on this Earth has a disability. Mine is math and sense of direction (or lack thereof), for instance. Once you acknowledge that everyone has a disability, it kind of sets a tone for a lovely, manageable chaos, where we all work around each other's strengths and weaknesses. We've been told from our employees that they experience a lack of judgement when they work on the farm, and that they miss working here when the season is over. So I think we are already succeeding at creating a community or tribe here on the farm. I just wish it was easier to duplicate that sensation when you're out in the real world.

What's next for you, your family, and the farm?

In preparation for 2018, we have tilled a new field (another acre) and planted cover crop to enrich the soil for planting in the spring. This new “Evaluation Field” will serve as an experimental garden where we will narrow the variety of crops grown to only three or four in order to test our hand at developing some value added products and a crop we might distribute through wholesale. We will divide this acre into quadrants, planting potatoes in one section, cucumbers in another, berries in the third, and garlic (or some other marketable crop that grows easily; we are currently interviewing local chefs to see what vegetables they would be most interested in buying from us) in the fourth. We will do this in order to experiment with the possibility of creating—respectively—potato chips, pickles, jams, and garlic for wholesale.

The goal of this experimental garden is to limit the intense workload and time pressures associated with potentially scaling up our 15 week-long Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership for the future. Growing an ever-changing variety of vegetables on a large scale—each, with their own planting, maintenance, and harvesting requirements—is daunting as a non-profit that is staffed by people with intellectual disabilities, to say the least. We see the long term goal of focusing on specialty products as a means of managing the growing season workload, as well as an opportunity to introduce our employees to new skills and employment opportunities. For instance, creating value-added products will require us to eventually use a commercial kitchen and teach food safety procedures to our employees. This set of skills could easily be transferred to other potential workplaces for our employees, including restaurants and hotels. As noted above, we try and teach and encourage skills in our growers that they will be expected to use with other employers, and not just on a farm.

We don’t foresee being ready to distribute any of these products on more than a tiny scale (farmers markets and CSA customers) in 2018, as we learn, experiment, and gather feedback. Based on what we learn, we would like to begin focusing on a particular product (or two) in 2019. We will continue growing and distributing our CSA boxes in 2018 and for the foreseeable future. However, in the long term, our goal is to increase the variety of work experiences we offer on and off the farm, and also hopefully bring in a new source of revenue for our organization.

We really hope to make this place a lasting institution, moving the land and house into some sort of trust that perhaps our daughter will manage. We hope that our son will live here for the rest of his life, with a caregiver or two. We are trying our best to grow this organization and farm in a careful, manageable, and slow way that will ensure its longevity. We want our idea to turn into a very real community that will benefit not only our son, but other people out there like him.

What is the ultimate dream for the farm for you?

Having full-time staff here to help us turn all of our ideas and everyone's suggestions into a reality. There is only so much sunlight and energy available to us each day--not to mention money. Farming is such hard work. Everything requires a huge outlay of labor and materials to build or prepare to grow or raise. And once it's alive and growing or living on the farm, it requires maintenance. Greg and I can't do it all forever. Our dream is to have a full-blown organization with staff, budgets, infrastructure, policies, public support, and so on, in order to make sure that what we've started will continue to grow and last. We want to hand this off to the people who make up this organization (and to our son and daughter) so that this little community we've started becomes an even greater and permanent resource for the people with disabilities who work here. My dream is to retire and die knowing that what we've created will outlast us, and will make a real difference in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.

Read part one of Greg and Maya's story here!

Here’s Why Disability Employment Matters

This post was originally published on Springable.com.

Somewhere between 85% and 88% of Americans with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (ID/DD) are unemployed.

That is depressing. The most recent employment numbers I could find were from 2014 (U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Community Survey 2014). Based on The Case for Inclusion, published each year by United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), only 12% of adults in 2016 with ID/DD, who received Medicaid services, had found employment. So apparently the number my husband cites – an 85% unemployment rate for these members of our society– when we make presentations about our non-profit organization, A Farm Less Ordinary, has not fundamentally shifted in the three years since we decided to focus on this problem. Not surprising.

We alone cannot push this number down, in our second year of operating as a non-profit, on a small farm in Bluemont, Virginia. But that hasn’t stopped us from proselytizing to anyone willing to listen that any employer in America could probably create a new or fill an existing job with an eager and able adult with an intellectual disability. You just have to be willing to think outside of the traditional “employee box.” You might need to split one job into two, or remove a job responsibility from an existing employee and shift it to a new guy, who happens to have an ID/DD. Or maybe you can offer a short-term, seasonal task that gets pushed to the bottom of your to-do list, but could be finished if you could only find one person who would be devoted to completing nothing else but this single task. And bingo! You’ve found a job that could easily be filled by a human with an intellectual disability.

If every employer could pause, and really think about it, we could knock that ~85% unemployment number down by at least a few percentage points. It’s not that hard, people!

People with disabilities will be your most attentive and loyal employees. Period.

As an employer to a person with an ID/DD, you may need to model the assigned tasks at first, answer a few additional questions about how you want it done, or even write up a list of tasks to complete during the course of that person’s shift. You may even need to occasionally check on the employee to ensure that he is completing the task correctly (as you would with any employee new to a task).

However, employees with ID/DD have a stick-to-it-iveness that you will not often find among your average hires. A typical employee might engage in idle chitchat or cell phone noodling just to break up the work day or pass the time. In contrast, employees with intellectual disabilities have likely been coached by parents and teachers that, in order to complete the daily tasks that many of us do automatically and thoughtlessly, they must instead be relentless in eliminating interruptions and remaining faithful to the script for each activity.

In reality, that means that employees with intellectual disabilities will likely work on their assigned task until you tell them to stop—with little to no breaks or cell phone tapping—as long as they have a clear understanding of what it is that they are supposed to be accomplishing. If you follow the rules and explain the work to them clearly, they will reward you with a no-nonsense completion of said work.

Bonus: they will show up to work all the time, even when you don’t expect them to!

Since starting our non-profit farm, we have seen our employees arrive to work on staggeringly hot days, when even we did not ask or expect anyone to come in. But our employees are sticklers for rules. If they are scheduled to work, they are going to show up to work, despite the brutal temperatures. (And yes, we strongly encouraged them to take extra breaks indoors, drink lots of water, and go home early.)

No one who draws breath should feel unnecessary, bored, or not included. We’re better than that as a society, aren’t we?

People with ID/DD are about as physically healthy as anyone else who eventually completes high school, and is told to go out there and do something with their lives (i.e., get a job, make a meaningful contribution to the world). People with ID/DD will experience the same typical life span as their typical peers, which—last I checked—ends somewhere between the age of 75 and 85 years old for the average American. This means that after the age of 22, when a student with ID/DD is “released” from the public school system’s responsibility, these people have 53 to 63 years to fill before they are released from this world’s responsibility.

The question then, is: what will people with ID/DD do to pass the time?

And the answer is simple.

Without being offered a role to play in our busy world, they will simply stay at home and probably be bored out of their minds. What a waste of a useful pair of hands and a human spirit over the course of 53 to 63 years. Instead, a potential “win-win” situation exists, just waiting for employers with an open mind (and a willingness to solve problems creatively) to reach out to members of our society, members who have time on their hands and a willingness to work.

We just need to make it happen. This is my call to action.

– Maya Wechsler, Springible Contributor

Vegetables Are Punny: 2017 T-Shirt Fundraiser

Help support our 2017 growing season, which is in full swing. We are growing twice as much as we did last year, with 8 employees who work tirelessly under the hot Virginia sun to plant, grow, and harvest a beautiful variety of veggies for delivery to low-income Loudoun County families and to Capitol Hill. 

We have started preparing a new field for next year, which will mean doubling the size of our tilled acreage (and responsibilities). We need to pay a contractor to come in and till under the cover crop we have planted there (to prepare the soil for next year), and we will also need to put up ~836 feet of deer fencing (to keep out hungry critters) before winter. 

Hence, the "punny" t-shirts that will help us cover all of these new costs. :)

We hope you'll support us again this year. We are grateful to everyone who helped us get this organization off the ground. https://www.customink.com/fundraising/vegetables-are-punny

Thank-you!!!!
The AFLO Team

Delivering Nutrition to Loudoun Families

In 2017, we have partnered with Loudoun Hunger Relief and Healthworks of Northern Virginia to deliver weekly healthy vegetable boxes to 25 low-income families that are struggling with obesity. This is a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved. We get to to work with two established non-profit "giants" in Loudoun County, local families get weekly fresh, organic vegetables, along with nutrition and cooking classes. And some of our Growers get to experience some interactions with community members outside of the farm. Here are some photos from today's delivery. This kid's smile brings a smile to our own faces!

 

 

Dirty, Creaky, and Tired: Why We Do It

I'm not gonna lie. Farming is hard work. Back-breaking work. Sweaty, stinky, dirty work. You definitely go to bed sore and wake up achy. And at this point, we are farming less than an acre of land. The commercial guys out there are farming hundreds and hundreds of acres using huge expensive machinery that allows them plant and harvest huge amounts of food each week, compared to what we manage, doing everything by hand.

Add to that the fact that many local grocery stores now offer some organic vegetables that are sometimes even grown by local, established farmers. And we're still hand-packing our vegetables into boxes and driving them into Winchester, Leesburg, and Washington, DC in our decidedly non-tractor-trailer cars.

Why do we bother? 

Because there are SO MANY teens and adults with intellectual disabilities who have empty hands, a lot of time on their hands, and a desperate desire to work. Once school is out for the summer or for good, these citizens have a lifetime ahead of them that they want to fill with something besides playing X-Box or hanging out with their parents all day. Not to mention the fact that one day, those parents will no longer be able to care for them...

Greg and I can see ourselves in that mental picture. We see our son, who is only 9 at the moment, sitting around at the age of 22, 35, 41, staring off into space, watching YouTube videos, snacking, and generally being bored out of his mind. Meanwhile, his sister will most likely have no trouble finding ways to fill her days with work and social opportunities, probably designing some crazy outfit out of her studio apartment in New York one day.

What a waste of my son's untapped health, energy, and time. What a missed opportunity to give parents like us a bit of a break for a few hours each day, and sense of relief that their now-grown children might have something productive to do during the decades of adulthood ahead of them.

This is why we launched A Farm Less Ordinary. We are not trying to compete with "The Big Guys". We are simply trying to create paid work for a group of people whose potential is often wasted, once they are out of the school system. Yes, we know that we are just a drop in the bucket, in terms of 1) creating enough jobs to satisfying the gaping need that exists out there, and 2) contributing food to a growing and already enormous organic food industry in the U.S.

A Farm Less Ordinary is definitely a labor of love that has probably added more grey hairs to my head than I care to admit. We are only in Year 2, as an official non-profit, and we do it in addition to our day jobs and parenting responsibilities. Each day is literally a trampoline bounce for us between all three of those things, each piece of which demands our time and energy...and love.

But we're doing something. We're not just wringing our hands, wondering what will become of our son. And that something makes the cracking knees, sun spots, and grey hair a little easier to ignore. 

And we've only just begun. We have such big plans.

But we're trying to grow A Farm Less Ordinary in a wise way. We not rushing to till more land before we have the staff and means to care for it. We haven't rushed to buy machinery or tools, until we are 100% certain that we will use these investments in a way that justifies their cost. And we have narrowed our sights and mission on causes and food sales outlets that we can actually manage. Of course there are tons of restaurants, grocery stores, and markets that we could approach to sell our veggies. And there are tons of potential events we could throw and people we should talk to. Indeed, the firehose of ideas and opportunities has been turned on for three years now, ever since we started farming in 2015.

But we can't say yes to every suggestion or idea that pops into our heads. So we say yes to what we can manage and complete successfully. 

That is why we are participating in the GiveChoose event today - a 24 hour fundraising event that draws attention to the non-profits in Loudoun County, Virginia (like ours) that are trying to turn a labor of love into something larger. These organizations usually sprout from an idea similar to the one we had - to begin filling in a hole with a small solution, shovelful by shovelful, with a hope and a prayer that this solution can thrive and grow into something sturdy and permanent, with deep roots and a beautiful flower at the top.

Our Segment on WUSA 9 News

Hey - Guess what? We were just featured on WUSA 9 news! We're so excited about this.

Here is the link with video and photos: http://www.wusa9.com/travel/open-road/a-farm-less-ordinary/274539691

BLUEMONT, Virginia (WUSA*9)--A Washington couple left their lives in the city and moved to the middle of nowhere.  They did it to save their son.  Millions of families in the United States are touched by someone who has autism or other special needs.   WUSA9 reporter, Scott Rensberger, takes us to a farm in Clarke County, Virginia where one family is trying to make a difference.  

At first, everything seemed normal; but, when Max Massucci turned three, his parents Greg and Maya knew something was wrong.

"It took me awhile to absorb that and accept it," says Maya Wechsler.

"He was late to crawling.  Late for talking," says Greg Masucci.

Max was diagnosed with autism.

"There is always some sadness when you're getting older and you're a parent of a special needs child and you have no idea what's going to happen to that child when you leave," says Maya.

Until recently, Greg and Maya lived on a busy street in Washington, DC.  They constantly worried about Max's safety.   They also worried about his future.  Intellectually disabled people often have a hard time fitting in and finding jobs.   

"The reality is the large percentage of this population remains unemployed," says Greg.

So, the couple chose a different path for their son's life.  These two city people bought a farm in a remote part of Virginia.       

"If you would have told me when I was my hip urban self 20 years ago in Chicago that I would be a farmer, I would have told you that you were crazy," says Greg.

"I've never grown anything.  Not a thing," says Maya.)

So, after uprooting their family they started a non-profit organization called A Farm Less Ordinary.  With the help of volunteers and other non-profit groups, Greg and Maya only employ people with special needs.

MORE:  A Farm Less Ordinary

Together they thrive right next to the squash.

"We'd like to fill all this land for farming," says Greg as he motions to the land surrounding him.

Greg and Maya are growing a community and a future for their son.

"If you don't like the story you need to change the script," explains Greg.  "We realized that in order to create a happy ending we had to change our script drastically."

Their hope is that this special farm will be here long after they're gone.

 

 

A Farm Less Ordinary in Bluemont, Virginia   (Photo: Scott Rensberger, WUSA9)

 

"We're trying to create a permanent community here.  Where he can walk out the door and see people like him and feel welcome," says Maya.

"This will probably be my son's forever home.  He's not likely to leave here, ever," says Greg
MORE:  Legacy Farms Virginia

 

Each week, Greg and Maya hand-deliver their organic produce to customers in the DC-area as part of their CSA-Community Supported Agriculture program.  Next year, they hope to expand to farmer's markets.  

Consider Making Us Your Amazon Smile Donor Organization!

Hi there,

We finally got around to setting up a link through the Amazon Smile program. This is a nifty little program that allows you to donate to us without even trying. You buy whatever you need on Amazon.com, and if the purchase is eligible (and I have found that most of mine are), we will get a tiny portion of your payment to Amazon. If everybody we knew were to select A Farm Less Ordinary as their Smile organization, those small donations would add up into something that we could use to...put up a shade area over our employee picnic table, or buy more landscaping fabric that keeps those annoying weeds under control. The possibilities are endless, when you're running a farm, honestly. 

So go here and register A Farm Less Ordinary as your organization of choice on Amazon Smile.

https://smile.amazon.com/ch/81-1191778

And make sure you type in smile.amazon.com each time you go to Amazon's site to make sure that you are donating to us with your purchase.

Thank-you so much!

Maya and Greg