A More Than Food Farm
Dawn peers over the hillside of Germantown, Maryland just before 6am. Two hours later, the staff and interns of Red Wiggler Farm begin the day’s work. The growers arrive by Metro Access van beginning at 8am, and the staff assigns everyone to teams with specific tasks, like planting seeds, weeding beds and harvesting vegetables.
Volunteers, that is anyone who comes to the farm to work that is not a staff member or a grower, will be paired with a group to work throughout the day. It is at that level that a web of interactions between the growers, volunteers, staff prompts learning on every level.
In the dewy heat of this particular July morning, groups of a half-dozen workers are crouched at beds across Red Wiggler’s thirteen fields. Growers, volunteers and staff are poking their fingers into the earth, plucking out weeds both evident and sly and dropping seeds into neat rows. Each group may be further divvied down to single tasks: one worker opens a small hole in the ground, another holds a packet of zucchini seeds and drops a single seed into the earth. Everybody weeds.
“This type of zucchini is called spineless perfection,” says Katie Junghans. Katie, the volunteer coordinator, is working with a half-dozen workers to weed the zucchini beds before planting these seeds of spineless perfection in the soil. The tasks are simple and repetitive.
There is a quiet, persistent flexibility to all aspects of the Red Wiggler farm. It is an organization whose mission—to provide meaningful work and healthy food to people with developmental disabilities—dictates a brisk, but un-taxing pace.
At the zucchini beds David Ruch, a grower, attempts to shortcut the process of drawing a small amount of seeds from the seed packet and planting them one-by-one. “The whole package occasionally will spill and then oh my gosh, that's the disaster of the century because we’re picking them up out of all this straw and stuff,” says Katie.
“It’s 52-pickup,” says David, before correcting “or 250-pickup.”
It’s such a small thing—the difference between pouring seeds into your hand and plucking them from their pouch—but the small steps matter. Looking around, other teams of two perform the same deliberate maneuver: one person makes a finger-sized hole in the ground, the second person drops one or two seeds in the hole and fills it in with dirt.
The farm is a training ground, inclusive community builder, and respite from the excessive demands of profit-driven commercial farming. Many tasks that would otherwise be done by larger machines are executed by hand instead, bringing a focus to the human mechanism and removing all distractions from the life-giving practice of tending to healthy food. This food will end up on tables across greater Montgomery County, including roughly 40% to low-income households.
The means is farming food, not the ends. At a larger farm, the end goal is the product that you take to market. Here, the end goal is the improvement of people’s lives and the vehicle to get there is farming food.Gerardo PatronFarm ManagerRed Wiggler
Conditions of Growth
If American agricultural life could be distilled to just one symbol, you might think it something industrial, like a tractor or combine. These images evoke the efficiency and might of commercial farming as well as engineering and automotive splendor. Likely, many would offer up the big red barn—home to livestock, tools and maybe even a family dwelling, often humble but always striking.
But what if it were something small and under-appreciated, an invaluable resource that turned garbage to gold: What if it was a worm?
It’s a funny name Red Wiggler, unserious at first take. Farm founder Woody Woodroof says “It’s a question designed to be asked.”
The red wiggler, which goes by many names (earthworm, trout worm, brandling worm) is a red worm used for vermicomposting. It is a slimy little garden pal that eats through dinner table scraps, old grass clippings, apple cores, banana peels and any other organically derived waste to create compost. They are as valuable to farming as they are common.
“It’s sort of a metaphor. The Red Wiggler hopes to be a place that can create the conditions for health and success,” says Woody. That health and success are focused especially on the growers at Red Wiggler, each of whom are people with disabilities hired to work on the farm. Red Wiggler is designed specially to develop and empower the personal and professional skills of the growers.
Steve Lashmit has been at Red Wiggler since 2009—almost a decade. He tended to a home garden before joining Red Wiggler. “That's why my job coach said here try this out and see how you do,” says Steve.
Steve is reserved, but confident and direct. As much as I’m asking him questions, he’s assessing me as well. Steve, like other growers has been asked questions throughout his entire life. For people with disabilities, questions and assessments are a regular part of personal and educational life, though the constancy can sometimes feel invasive and critical. Some growers, on the other hand, love answering questions and when journalists or documentary teams come out to the farm, being interviewed may be a part of their goal set or a kind of reward.
Most of the growers’ tasks take place at the farm, but around the month of August, they will go out to Leisure World (a retirement community) to sell some of the vegetables. “I meet the customers, greet them and answer any questions they have,” says Steve, “Like ‘What kind of tomato it is?’ or ‘Does this take long to ripen?’”
For Steve, the trips to Leisure World are outside his comfort zone, but that’s one of the reasons the staff rely on him to go from time to time. “Not everybody wants to do retail. Some people want to make the thing that goes to the retail,” says Woody. Steve has also worked at Red Wiggler longer than some staff members, so his experience is very valuable.
Like Steve, Iya Snowber prefers to be in the field. I try to get her away from the carrot beds for an interview, but she stuffs a carrot in my hand and insists, "[You] can talk to me from here. It'll be a lot easier. I don't want to miss my job."
Iya has worked at Red Wiggler for around seven years. She began as a volunteer and liked it so much she continued on. She most enjoys growing peppers, beets and carrots.
She shows me another carrot, this one deformed, “That means it's not good and it's been chopped by the pitchfork.” Bad carrots don’t go out to the CSA, but they do get eaten.
Woody started the farm about 22 years ago (in 1996), after his experience working in a group home for people with developmental disabilities. He made two observations there, which became seeds of purpose for Red Wiggler: The people he was working with needed meaningful work and better access to healthy food.
At the time, Woody was in his 20's and working at a facility that provided 24-7 care, but he wanted to move to a more manageable day-program. “I went for a simpler route, which some would say isn't all that simple—bringing together organic farming with working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” says Woody.
And that was the birth of Red Wiggler—a single farm with a simple mission of good jobs for people with disabilities growing healthy food. Though not deliberately at first, Red Wiggler was part of a nascent movement toward care farming, which aims to “provide health, social or specialist educational care services for individuals from one or a range of vulnerable groups,” according to Care Farming UK.
Care farms can include a broad range of work and activities for the disabled or other vulnerable groups. Workers and volunteers may grow vegetables or raise livestock, even participate in equine therapy, all with the goal of strengthening self-esteem, and connecting people with the natural world in a productive and personal way.
Care farming at Red Wiggler comes down to working with each grower on a series of goals. Though much of the farming is done by hand, the staff and growers do use tools like the mechanical seeder to aid in the work and individual growth of the growers.
For growers, “Their goal might be first to get introduced to a tool, then to become adept enough to be able to have it be part of their expected work plan,” says Katie Junghans. “And then eventually become independent, where they could be set up with another grower or a volunteer and do that on their own.”
Brandon and the lawn mower is a perfect example.
Since its founding, Red Wiggler has connected with many other US-based care farms, like Camphill Village Kimberton Hills in Pennsylvania, Old School Farms in Nashville and Bittersweet Farms in Whitehouse, Ohio. This year marks the inaugural Mid-Atlantic Care Farming summit, which will be put on by Red Wiggler Farms in coordination with Future Harvest CASA.
“Nobody has brought all these people together. We go to the farming conference and we’re step-children cause we get that grant money. We go to disability conferences and we’re step-children because we don’t get state money and we run a business.” The Mid-Atlantic Care Farming Summit will be tailored for and by local care farms.
Like people, Red Wiggler is bringing whole farms together to share resources, practices, and learning, while also encouraging other would-be farmers to engage on a local level.
Our feeling is that we can expand this concept not necessarily by expanding acreage but by helping each other so there’s a community farm in every county, every neighborhood.Woody WoodroofFounderRed Wiggler
Students of Each Other
On my first visit to Red Wiggler, I talked with a group that included Steve and David (growers), Katie (volunteer coordinator), Ashley Jordan (crew leader) and Angelika and Micah (volunteers).
Some staff, like co-farm managers Melissa McLearen and Gerardo Patron, had farm experience prior to Red Wiggler, while others came to Red Wiggler with the idea of starting their own farm. Many have a mix of previous experience and aspiration.
Ashley Jordan recently graduated from James Madison University with a degree in biology and joined Red Wiggler, in part, to further her education on organic farming techniques. She works with interns and growers and keys in on the biology of farming.
On her own farm, Ashley says, “I want to have a permaculture system, having permanent crops year-round and then incorporate animals into that to make it a closed loop thing—where you're using them for compost and you're also using them for meat and different things.”
Micah, who is working on starting his own farm in Alabama has been visiting farms all over the country to see the range of farming practices on care farms and community farms. His home set-up is small, but he wants to expand, “We've already got a greenhouse built. I've got some stuff planted. We've got eleven chickens...”
In looking at Red Wiggler as an organization that offers learning and growth to many groups of people, there is a bigger picture to growing vegetables. “If a volunteer is coming, we want them to learn stuff. We want them to create an inclusive environment with the growers,” says Woody, “Yeah, we want to get some work done, but it’s more in that order.”
Students may arrive at Red Wiggler expecting to teach or to offer their skill set, but more often than not, they realize that they themselves have much to learn.
In addition to service learning, school groups of all ages visit the farm to learn about the process of growing healthy food. They taste, touch and smell the yield, fusing social interaction and biology on the sunny hill of Red Wiggler. High school volunteers come to the farm to fulfill service hours but end up learning about farming and disabilities as a result of constant work and interaction with staff and growers. Other volunteers come to learn about farming practices and are exposed to the community of workers that care about each other more than the product.
“We have adult volunteers, we have growers, we have job coaches, we have interns, a young crew leader who’s in her first year of really leading teams. They’re all talking to each other and exchanging ideas and feedback making observations about the vegetables and the insects and the birds,” says Woody.
“There’s this really cool learning thing for everyone out there at their level. And they’re all growing from this experience,” says Melissa.
Red Wiggler’s impact is clearly seen in the longevity and growth of each individual grower. Several growers, including David and Steve, have worked for over a decade at the farm. Even so, the farm faces some threats that tie directly to the growers. One of those threats is transportation.
Growers mostly rely on Metro Access to provide transport to and from the farm, but the Metro Access program (which costs up to $6.50 per ride) often misses the target pickup and drop-off times. “Our guys are brought to work too early, brought to work too late, picked up too early, picked up too late," says Woody.
In looking at the employment opportunities for other people with disabilities, arriving too early or late to a job could mean the difference between continued employment and firing. At Red Wiggler, part of building an inclusive and empathetic community requires accommodating those types of transportation issues.
In the future, Red Wiggler hopes to expand by doubling its current size from 12 acres to 24 acres. The growth in acreage parallels the organization's goal to encourage more community farms, including care farms that offer herbs and vegetables locally grown and locally consumed.
Red Wiggler maintains a focus on the smallest interaction between people and ensures that growers, staff and volunteers are moving toward a goal that is, for each of them, community focused. “It does slow things down, but you have to remember why we’re here, to help people learn stuff, grow, and develop self-esteem,” says Woody.
Summing up the ethos and intention, Gerardo offers a quote by Japanese author and farmer Masanobu Fukuoka:
The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.
This is, without question, among the most wonderful and necessary efforts I have ever encountered. It's an example to us all in creating inclusive community spaces, prioritizing people over production and doing things the hard way on purpose.
I learned so much in the process of creating this story and am personally very grateful to Woody and the entire grower-staff team for welcoming us so generously and warmly.
Also, I'd like to personally extend our sincere thanks to Brandon for sharing his story and experience with us for the film component! What a joy to sit for an interview and shadow him in the fields.
It's our hope that more people in the DC-MD region might consider participating in the Red Wiggler CSA and/or donating to support their growth and efforts!
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly