Edible DC Summer 2015 : Page 42

S OIL T HERAPY Red Wiggler Farm nurtures people with disabilities Photo by Victoria Milko. Words by Whitney Pipkin T yler Cunningham has been running the mower at Red Wiggler Farm for 15 years, and he’s good at it. He can mow back overgrown edges and carve narrow strips LQWRÀHOGVRIKDLU\YHWFKDQGU\H&#0f;GHÀQLQJURZVIRUVSULQJ plantings, with ease. +HFDQHYHQÀ[WKHPRZHUZKHQLWEUHDNV&#0f;QRVPDOOIHDW for a 56-year-old with developmental disabilities, one who’s found a career and identity as a farmer. Cunningham is one of 17 such growers at the Clarksburg, MD, farm that’s been growing both organic produce and skillful people just north of the Beltway for nearly 20 years. ´7KHLGHDLVWKDWHYHU\ERG\·VJRWVRPHWKLQJWRRͿHU&#0f;QR matter what your label is, so let’s focus on people’s abilities,” VD\V:RRG\:RRGURRI&#0f;IRXQGHUDQGH[HFXWLYHGLUHFWRURIWKH QRQSURÀWIDUP Practically predicting the locavore movement that would make its community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares a hit, the farm was founded in 1996 based on two tenets: that people with developmental disabilities need meaningful 42 | edible DC | SUMMER 2015 employment and that there’s nothing more meaningful than growing food for people. The farm now sells CSA shares to 120 households that SLFNXSWKHLUER[HVZHHNO\RQVLWH,WGHOLYHUVVLPLODUVKDUHV to 325 people with disabilities, living mostly in group homes, and the rest is donated to Manna Food Center in Rockville. Woodroof had no idea the farm would have such staying SRZHUZKHQKHÀUVWFRQFHLYHGRILW+HZDVD´VWDUYLQJDUW -ist” working at a group home in Arizona at the time. Soon after starting the job, Woodroof was gleaning more inspira-tion from the people at the home, who “had a truly unique way of seeing the world,” than from his artwork. Despite a lack of farming knowledge, Woodroof started a community garden at the home to provide more nutritious food—and an opportunity for developmental growth—to the residents. “That’s where the name Red Wiggler came from,” he says, referring to the earthworms that are a boon for compost piles. ´,W·VWKHFRQFHSWRIWUDQVIRUPLQJWKHJURXQGDQGSHRSOHLQD variety of ways.”

Soil Therapy

Words by Whitney Pipkin

Red Wiggler Farm nurtures people with disabilities

Tyler Cunningham has been running the mower at Red Wiggler Farm for 15 years, and he's good at it. He can mow back overgrown edges and carve narrow strips into fields of hairy vetch and rye, defining rows for spring plantings, with ease.

He can even fix the mower when it breaks, no small feat for a 56-year-old with developmental disabilities, one who's found a career and identity as a farmer.

Cunningham is one of 17 such growers at the Clarksburg, MD, farm that's been growing both organic produce and skillful people just north of the Beltway for nearly 20 years.

"The idea is that everybody's got something to offer, no matter what your label is, so let's focus on people's abilities," says Woody Woodroof, founder and executive director of the nonprofit farm.

Practically predicting the locavore movement that would make its community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares a hit, the farm was founded in 1996 based on two tenets: that people with developmental disabilities need meaningful employment and that there's nothing more meaningful than growing food for people.

The farm now sells CSA shares to 120 households that pick up their boxes weekly onsite. It delivers similar shares to 325 people with disabilities, living mostly in group homes, and the rest is donated to Manna Food Center in Rockville. Woodroof had no idea the farm would have such staying power when he first conceived of it. He was a "starving artist" working at a group home in Arizona at the time. Soon after starting the job, Woodroof was gleaning more inspiration from the people at the home, who "had a truly unique way of seeing the world," than from his artwork.

Despite a lack of farming knowledge, Woodroof started a community garden at the home to provide more nutritious food–and an opportunity for developmental growth–to the residents.

"That's where the name Red Wiggler came from," he says, referring to the earthworms that are a boon for compost piles. "It's the concept of transforming the ground and people in a variety of ways."

IN THEIR WHEELHOUSE

When Woodroof stumbled into land in the Washington area–and the CSA model–he realized that growing food could also provide much-needed jobs for this population. Nationally, less than 18% of people with a disability were employed in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Woodroof got his first donation of $10,000 to make the farm a reality in 1995. He ran the operation for nine years on land in Comus, MD, that was basically donated to the cause before moving the nonprofit to its current location.

The farm now leases a dozen acres inside a deer fence from the 300-acre Ovid Hazen Wells Park that abuts sprawling subdivisions in Maryland's Montgomery County.

The partnership is one of many that makes the farm possible, says Woodroof. The farm also employs a full-time staff of six to guide and assist the growers and help the farm's many facets run smoothly.

Just as it's taken time to cultivate the soils, which historically grew commodity crops like
tobacco and corn, into a certified organic farm, it's taken time to see transformation among the growers, who range in age from mid-20s to mid-50s.

There's Craig Springer, who desperately wanted to run the mower like Cunningham when he started working at the farm six years ago. But, as Woodroof tells the story, he was, at first, more interested in others watching him mow than in watching where he was going.

Six years later, he's not only adept at cutting grass but also at starting up conversations. Though he hung his head shyly when he first pushed by with his wheelbarrow during a recent visit to the farm, he later opened up, telling the photographer to be sure to "Wear your seatbelt!" on the way home.

"Now that they have something that they're proud of and that they're good at, they don't hide as much," Woodroof says. "They're a little more gregarious, a little more out there."

Woodroof was surprised to see how eager grower Steve Lashmit was to talk about his favorite vegetables produced at the farm. He had just finished prepping a windswept portion of the farm for planting, but he was already thinking about harvest.

The food grown here "tastes better than anything in the grocery store. It's organic," says Lashmit, who likes to make vegetable soup with the produce in his weekly farm box.

For Jerry Dillon, who's been working at the farm since its inception two decades ago, watermelon is the annual highlight. He got visibly upset remembering how crows had gotten to the fruit before him last year, vowing to keep them away this summer.

Now in his mid-50s, Dillon is still learning new skills every season. During our visit, he used a narrow wheel hoe to form the sides of a long planting bed.

"That's growth," says Andrea Barnhart, the farm manager, who watched closely as Dillon completed the task he had not been able to last season. She says such hoeing requires a certain level of hand-eye coordination, concentration and self-control that doesn't come easily for some of the farm's workers.

Barnhart oversees farm operations while other staffers work with volunteers (the farm gets dozens from area high schools) or plan educational programs for schools that visit.

Part of her job is to ensure that each grower has valuable work to do while at the farm–work that's in their wheel-house–and that they stay on task. Though the farm churns out plenty of produce to feed its customers, it's clear that the team is just as focused on the people producing it.

"We're not going to say we know everything about farming or about people with disabilities," Woodroof says, which is why he works with experts on both fronts.

Kara Desmond, a former staff member, moved on from the farm to pursue a degree in horticultural therapy, which uses plant-based activities to achieve therapeutic treatment goals. She was inspired by what she'd seen firsthand at Red Wiggler–how growers who struggled to look others in the eye during a conversation could do so more easily while working the soil or teaching visiting students about herbs.

"The ability of this type of work to empower is really something I haven't seen in other places," Desmond said when she still worked at the farm. "Our growers take on the role of mentor and teacher; it's really ingrained in what they do and who they are."

Learn more about the farm at redwiggler.org.

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist covering food, farms and the environment from Alexandria, VA. Her work appears in the Washington Post, Virginia Living and the Chesapeake Bay Journal, among others, and she writes at thinkabouteat.com.

Read the full article at http://digitaleditions.sheridan.com/article/Soil+Therapy/2028956/261650/article.html.

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