In backyards across the country, home gardeners will soon delight in a rich harvest of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. But in the Arthur & Friends Greenhouse Project, the yield is much richer: worthwhile jobs for people with disabilities. What began as an ambitious idea four years ago for Wendie Blanchard has become a successful growing social entrepreneurship, employing several people with disabilities and training many more.
Genesis of the Program
Blanchard’s nephew, Arthur Blanchard, inspired Wendie to establish the Greenhouse Project. A young adult with Down Syndrome, Arthur was unsatisfied with his sheltered-workshop job of filling bags with dog treats. Wendie’s background in working with teens with disabilities in Sussex County, New Jersey gave her additional insight into the larger problem of employment satisfaction needs for people with disabilities. “The problem as I saw it was this,” says Wendie. “Meaningful jobs [needed to be created] in an industry…where sales would be constant even in a time of recession. Since people always need food, I thought about [farming] as the answer.”
Her ambitious aims also included providing work in a valuable sector that produced delicious locally grown produce using environmentally friendly methods. Tackling all this via vegetable production created its own set of issues. For example, Wendie states, “I didn’t want to create jobs that were seasonal. I wanted steady year-round employment for my target worker group—people with disabilities.” Her background working in vocational education made clear to her how limited the employment options often are for people with disabilities when they leave the school system and became adults.
After setting goals for Arthur & Friends came the practical questions: Where, how and what should we grow? How can we train employees with disabilities to plant, harvest and sell the vegetables? How would the produce reach the market? How would the project cope with weather issues in New Jersey to achieve year-round farming?
Blanchard sought the help of two of the country’s premier agricultural schools: Cornell University and Ohio State. Their studies recommended greenhouse growing and the use of hydroponics, a system of growing plants in water rather than soil. Their agricultural experts pointed out that the costs for hydroponic growing would be at least fifty percent less than for soil-based farming. In addition, because hydroponic plants are grown on tables, people in wheelchairs could more easily plant and harvest crops as well as work in sales.
A donated greenhouse, funds raised through donations and finances for the development staff from New-Jersey–based community action organization, NORWESCAP, gave the program its start in 2007. NORWESCAP, the Northwest New Jersey Community Action Program, in keeping with its mission to “fight poverty, create opportunities, and change lives,” gave Arthur & Friends just under $50,000. The total cost to set up the initial 1,500 square-foot growing space was around $90,000. About half of the money was spent on installing the hydroponic growing tables.
Arthur & Friends is now a three-greenhouse enterprise that sells vegetables and herbs to both wholesale and retail markets. The greenhouses seek to leave a small ecological footprint while they complete their primary missions of job training and local food production.
Hydroponic farming as achieved by Arthur & Friends involves a highly controlled environment in which nutrient-rich water is recycled, much equipment is made from recycled materials and heating comes from the sun and small gas heaters. As a further environmentally-friendly measure, the program is considering switching to solar heat. Finally, the group demonstrates a commitment to supporting American labor by purchasing tables made in America of American resources.
The project’s work also underscores a connection to the community at large. Blanchard notes, “We grow a variety of items, including some specialty items for restaurants, but we do not want to be elitist. We feel strongly our commitment to feed the poor.” The group accomplishes these two aims by growing some high-end items, including custom microgreens and other unique specialty greens, to be sold to high-end restaurants. This enables Arthur & Friends to keep the prices of traditional items like romaine lettuce, basil and Swiss chard affordable to the general public.
After its initial year with just one greenhouse, Arthur & Friends moved to a new site at the New Jersey State Fairgrounds in Sussex County, a venue with more space, more opportunity for trainees to interact with customers, and more positive public exposure for the program. Blanchard notes that the New Jersey Fairground location provides a great place not only for the public to purchase their food but also to find out how the greenhouse hydroponics work — and to discover the employment potential of people with disabilities.
By October 2008 the initial greenhouse was selling produce successfully, had 14 “Friends,” or project participants, in training and was waiting to train 48 more on a waiting list. In 2009 the project began to expand with the generosity of a $500,000 grant from the Kessler foundation. By 2010 the Sussex greenhouse had 31 trainees, three fulltime staff members and a waiting list of 90. That same year, the project entered its first private enterprise partnership, with local Hackettstown florist Greenway Flowers. Such collaborations open the door for trainees to work for employers other than Arthur’s. Later in 2010, Arthur & Friends partnered with Garden State Urban Farms in Essex County but serving ex-offenders as the target employment population.
“Friends” work between 8 and 20 hours a week. The “Friends” receive approximately 200 hours of non-paid training initially. After they have successfully completed the first two training modules, they are assisted in finding employment in the community. Those who are hired by Arthur and Friends are paid an hourly pay rate that ranges from $7.45 to $13 an hour, depending on responsibilities, but the very act of growing plants is rewarding for many participants. Trainees learn not only all aspects of hydroponic agriculture but also general workplace skills such as invoicing, shipping, ordering, conducting online sales and interacting with customers. Friends even give tours of the facility, during which visitors can learn about hydroponics while also seeing people with disabilities as experts on a fun and fascinating subject.
Program participants take on all aspects of selling, from contracting with restaurants to interacting with customers at the greenhouses. As an online store becomes available in the near future, Friends will work on that endeavor as well.
Key to the training regimen of each Friend is the daily planning session, during which group and individual goals are set. The primary components of Arthur & Friends training are hydroponic techniques, produce marketing and selling, and strategies for finding work in the agricultural sector.
Because disability situations tend to be highly individualized, training methods are often customized as well. For example, one man with almost complete mobility disability learned to use his mouth to manipulate chopsticks to plant seeds. Another uses a pizza cutter to separate lettuce plants into seeded rows.
Blanchard notes that watching the seeds grow and change is like watching the Friends grow and change: the work plants the seed of self-confidence in them. Several program graduates have already been placed in satisfying jobs, and more employers are showing interest. Some are achieving employment outside of the agricultural sector using the general skills they learned in the program. The florist partnership also opened a door into private-sector employment.
According to a Kessler Foundation newsletter, more than 70 people with disabilities have learned valuable business and social skills at Arthur & Friends. While most program graduates work for local businesses or as trainers and supervisors at Arthur & Friends, several have branched out. Two have enrolled at Sussex Community College—one woman, disabled by a stroke at age 22, is studying marketing in order to better promote the message of Arthur & Friends; another, with physical disabilities and partial deafness, plans to teach sign language. “Both were largely confined to their homes before the program,” Blanchard said. “Now,” she says proudly, “with their new-found confidence and skills, they are ready to take on the world!”
The Kessler Foundation newsletter also reports that Arthur & Friends recently received a “Local Heroes” award from Edible Jersey magazine for promoting locally grown produce and is featured in a new documentary on opportunities in green businesses for people with disabilities. In February 2010 the program received an award from NJ BIZ Magazine, naming Arthur & Friends the most “innovative” business, in the non-profit category. Ever since the program was first publicized in its early days on the radio and in the New York Times, interest in creating similar programs has mushroomed.
Where someone else might see a simple school program or greenhouse, Blanchard sees an opportunity for some version of the Arthur & Friends Greenhouse concept to take root. Blanchard estimates that there are 184 greenhouses in the five-county area of northwestern New Jersey, which translates into a lot of potential for success. Rutgers University has already purchased a module to attempt to develop a similar project on campus. Over 34 states, a variety of foreign countries, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a number of other Federal, State and local governmental entities have expressed interest in creating similar programs to promote better health, offer locally grown vegetables and make job opportunities for workers with disabilities and other disenfranchised groups.
Blanchard’s dream is to have an Arthur & Friends–type program in place in every community, with schoolchildren literally eating the fruits of their labors and people with disabilities working productively to selling healthy food options in the neighboring areas. She says, “We do not yet have a greenhouse in any school, but it is part of the dream for the future. The only disability is attitude.”
How do Arthur & Friends leaders sustain such passion for the program? Blanchard says, “We bring [our workers with disabilities] out of the shadows. They come to work with the public. They know that they are making a…contribution, that they have something of value to share and it gives them confidence.” That harvest is worth reaping year-round.
Edited by Mary-Louise Piner.
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