The Farm That Cares
Eisenis Fetida is a little critter that has a lot of colloquial names: trout worm, brandling worm, manure worm. But most often, they are called red wigglers. They are, you might say, the unsung heroes of American soil. If you want to add worms to your compost pile, they are your most common and reliable choice. They are the wriggling creatures that live in the darkness of the dirt. They rarely come to the surface. You may only take an interest in them if you come to care about the largely unseen work of rejuvenating and renutriating soil - not unlike the farm that bears their name.
Three years ago, BitterSweet Monthly did a feature on Red Wiggler Farm just an hour north of Washington, DC. Now we are sticking our hands back into the Maryland soil to see just how much The Farm that Grows Farmers has been up to.
Red Wiggler is a Care Farm. That means it is a farm with a bigger mission than simply gathering a harvest. They exist to offer… well... all that a farm can offer. It’s not just fruits and vegetables, but also the stuff of human life that is more difficult to get your mouth around: education, therapy, inclusion. Melissa McLearen is the farm manager and coordinates "all of the different worlds that make up Red Wiggler.” But because Red Wiggler is a Care Farm, she approaches her job differently than some of her colleagues at other operations might. “We focus more on the people-aspects. We allow time for training. We allow time for vocational development, and we allow time for just people-things to happen,” she says.
Red Wiggler employs 15 adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities as “growers” - what you and I would likely call farmers. Growers plant seeds in small pots, transfer them to the ground, and harvest them as produce. They are employees in no modified sense. There are not shortened expectations or relaxed standards. Their salaries are not donations or aid. “The worker is worthy of their wages,” as the saying goes.
In fact, if you talk to volunteers or staff members, you will hear a repeated story of learning just how worthy of their wages these growers are. Andrea Barnhart was Melissa’s predecessor as farm manager. When asked what the soul of Red Wiggler is, she says, “It's experiencing that work with someone who's different from you. You're coming in and you're expecting a situation where you're establishing a relationship and a rapport with someone with a developmental disability.” She came to the farm after a stint in consulting. Working with differently abled adults was a new experience for her, “and in addition to having the experience, all of my judgements and stereotypes were dismantled.” During her tenure as farm manager, she learned to approach the growers with real respect and a professional expectation. “I was managing the growers. I had certain expectations of them as a worker that were important. It wasn't that like, ‘you have a disability, so you can only do blah, blah, blah.’ We have to go pick these tomatoes in the heat, so we're all going to go out.”
Brandon Vreeland is one of those growers. “I am a farmer at Red Wiggler. I do harvesting and mowing, and I love it. I've been here for seven years. I really enjoy it.” It is clear how much he takes pride in the work he does, in the responsibilities he holds. He also has a real appreciation for being a farmer. “It's very different from being in an office all day sitting at a desk in front of a computer and doing paperwork. I like being a farmer because I can come out here during the week, even when it's hot. And I don't care at 500 degrees. My body feels like an oven, but they have a beautiful breeze that you can come out here, pick harvests, do anything that makes you feel really good.” He smiles on the porch, glistening with joy and a bit of a summer sweat. “Well, it's my dream job. So that's what I love to do. Even though I get hot and tired, you've got to feel yourself alive sometimes.”
In other words, Red Wiggler cares by giving differently abled adults meaningful and gainful employment in a people-first context. But that is not the only way Red Wiggler lives into this deeper vision of farming.
The Farm That Teaches
They are also committed to education. When asked what a farm can teach people, Melissa quickly says, “Everything! So if you're a science person, there's all the science behind farming to learn. If you're a people person there's so much to learn about people. There’s a kind of sports angle to it: we’re all athletes here. And there's probably more that I'm not thinking about.”
Darlene Richardson is the education coordinator at Red Wiggler. She is responsible for a host of educational programs: school visits to the farm, tours, workshops with members of the community. She also coordinates the farm’s CSA or community supported agriculture program. “We say that our CSA program is part of our educational mission on the farm. So we want people to not just come and pick up produce, but we want them to come and learn something new, try a new vegetable.” You might think of her as the farm’s educator-in-residence. How many farms have one of those?
When I asked her the same question I asked Melissa, she says, “There's no curriculum unit that can't be taught on a farm. Even from a very young age when you're doing, I think like kindergarten, first grade simple things like opposites, we will go into the field and go, ‘Is this hard or soft? Is this rough or smooth?’” The longer she processes that out loud, the more I’m convinced. “There's a lot of math and counting and weighing. Yeah, we can talk about history. History and social science talking about where food comes from.”
Just to push the envelope, I ask a bit wryly, “Scuba diving?”
“Yeah. I mean, we could talk about oyster farming in Southern Maryland. Aqua culture.” Got me there.
Two years ago, however, Red Wiggler upped the ante on education. They started the Care Farming Network, a siblinghood of other farms like theirs. The goal here, besides simply connecting other farms to one another, is the dissemination of information. Red Wiggler has been at this for a long time, 25 years. They feel they have something to share. The 16 farms of this ever-growing Care Farming Network seem to agree.
Take Rebecca Sorensen and her son, Raimee. They cofounded Blawesome Flower Farm in the fall of 2015 with a grant from the North Carolina Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Raimee is on the autism spectrum and has been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive anxiety disorder and epilepsy. But what has happened at their for-profit flower farm has been remarkable. “Well, if you want to speak in very tangible terms,” Rebecca says, “if you pool Raimee's Medicaid files for the past four years, you can see the steep decline in his access of all these peripheral Medicaid services that he was tapping into.” Raimee no longer takes fluvoxamine. He has only had one seizure since 2015.
Rebecca came to the Mid-Atlantic Summit that Red Wiggler hosted in 2018. After that, Blawesome joined the Care Farming Network. “I love that we have a presence there and that I have a way to share, because we're not a program or a micro enterprise, so our farm is owned and co-operated by Raimee. It's a business. We are for-profit. And so our model is quite different than a lot of the other models you'll see out there. So it's really nice for me to be able to share with others in our community that we're not the only thing going - there are other ways, other practices.”
There is also A Farm Less Ordinary. Founded by Greg and Maya Weschler in the spring of 2016. Their son, Max, is “autistic and non-verbal, and has serious sensory and attention challenges that require him to be with a caretaker at all times,” as their website says. They are steely and committed folks, not easy to deter. “We built the original farm plots and we decided if we'd had a decent harvest in 2015, we were going to go for this non-profit idea. So we did. Through stupidity and perseverance and dumb luck.”
They came to the Care Farming Network through Woody Woodroof, Red Wiggler’s founder and executive director. At first, they thought they were charging out alone. “We did a little research and we found out that green care farming, green care, as a therapeutic model has been around for a very, very long time. But in that research, we ran across Woody. And, Woody, we call him up, and he's like sure, I'll talk to you.” The network has offered them a wealth of wisdom that they do not have to learn the hard way. No need to reinvent the wheel. “Luckily we found Woody. So he had been around the block a few times and knew what kinds of challenges we were facing.”
There is strength in numbers too. When all of these farms come together, they can teach something not just to each other but to the rest of the country. Rebecca Sorensen sees an opportunity here “to share what we're doing with others, and the impacts that what we're doing has. And not just folks with disabilities, but folks without disabilities who you get to witness this practice. I would love to be able for all of this to get back to department of health and human services, so they can say, ‘Yeah, this is a viable approach to healthcare.’"
The Farm That Learns
I have just turned off my recorder when Woody says something that strikes me. “Dangit Woody… say that again, please.” I turn the recorder back on.
Chuckling he says, “I was just explaining that I had been reminded by a volunteer, and I need to be reminded because I work here every day, what a beautiful setting this is. And I know that that volunteer's also learning a lot about gardening here, but today she reminded me of the beauty of our surroundings, and that's an example of when learning is going both directions. That is when it's really singing along and working really well.”
As much as it is difficult to exhaust an answer to the question what can you learn on a farm, it seems equally difficult to answer “who.” Who can join in on that circle of learning?
Most recently, this has been the members of the Care Farming Network. As much as Red Wiggler may be the group’s facilitating farm, it is clear that Red Wiggler is not there to be a lecturer. The Care Farming Summit, which will hopefully resume in the near future, is all about a generous sharing of best practices. Each from learns from the others. Each farm shares with the others. The Weschlers of A Farm Less Ordinary have something to offer to and something to glean from the Sorensens of Blawesome. Put them together with Homefields and Full Pocket Farms and Cura Personalis – you have a genuine library of care farming knowledge.
Of course, the growers learn. Brendan says, “I have learned! I don't fill up the gas tanks on the mowers because that's not part of my job and duties; I don't check underneath. So I am trying to be more independent so I can do the golf cart, the tractor, more independent mowing. Mow when they need me to mow, so yeah. It's been quite an experience to have.” They learn the stuff of being a farmer. They learn perhaps the oldest trade known to human beings: bringing produce from the earth.
Then there is a veritable parade of visitors to the farm who come there explicitly to learn something: community groups and students of all ages. This is, again Darlene’s work. She co-leads tours with a few growers. “They are farmers. They know the farm really well. They know how we grow. And so for them to be able to lead the tours, to teach volunteers, and to teach interns, I think it builds confidence and that sense of pride in what they do and understanding how meaningful their work is to the community.” In that way, the growers turn out to be as much teachers as anyone else at Red Wiggler. As Darlene says, its about “having our growers be teachers, and be empowered as facilitators.”
So people come to Red Wiggler to learn something from this place that they likely have a difficult time learning elsewhere. Community groups, school kids, just the once-off visitor – they come to learn about a farm from someone with development and intellectual disabilities who has, themselves, learned the love and labor of farming.
That is the spirit of Red Wiggler: open and generous learning. Woody says, “Learning that's top-down is a kind of learning that I never responded to.” Learning between equals – that is the kind, you get the sense, they are here to facilitate. Between growers and staff, between Care Farms, even between a long-time members and a story-writer who has just shown up for a day -- there is an expectation that every party is in a position to learn something.”
Of course, it makes you wonder, what the likes of most of us – that is, people who have not been on a farm in years – can learn from Red Wiggler. For those who do not do the work of harvesting, who might be able to see a park from the office window, who face daily standards of efficiency - what do these farms have to teach? Maybe there is a lesson here in more inclusive work environments, like creating places of diversity that do not neglect neurodiversity? Maybe there is a wider imagination for meaningful relationships with people not like us? Maybe there is a reminder in recognizing that so much of our work is not under our control, a lesson in patience?
Or maybe the lesson is just, you need to get yourself to a farm.
The Farm that Still Cares
This is Red Wiggler’s 25th anniversary, and what a 25th year. In the pandemic, they have learned to keep the caring up when the world needed all the more care. For sure, they took care of their own the operations of the farm looked very different with fewer visitors on the property, masks in the field. But the people of Red Wiggler have kept their gaze beyond their small plot of land. Brandon says, “people don't have jobs right now because it's hard because of COVID moving slowly. I finally got my vaccine, but it's really hard for people. People are not doing well at all.”
For the last year, Red Wiggler changed the way it distributes food. Woody tells me that they used to sell 70% of their produce. “Then 30% we would distribute to food banks locally. Well, last year we switched it to 50/50. So we increased by 20% what we were sending to what we then called the neighbors in need program.”
For the last 25 years, they have brought good things out of the ground in Germantown. They have employed routinely overlooked folks. They have offered education to young and old. They have widened the fellowship of care farms in their new network. And they have no intention of slowing down any time soon. On the other side of the pandemic, they seem strong as ever and are gratefully joyful for it. That is remarkable and tangible work.
But when I ask Katie Sebastian, the chair of the board, what the soul of Red Wiggler is, she says, “I could go to the farm and it didn't matter if I had a master's degree. It didn't matter if I had been working internationally for 20 years in agriculture. That grower who knows this field was telling me exactly how to do something. And we were all on an even ground. And the level of respect for that. So that to me is the soul of Red Wiggler.”
This farm has created a remarkable spirit, a community of attentive care. That is something you can never buy at market. It is, like those little worms, easy to overlook even though it is wriggling with life.