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!