BLUEMONT — A Farm Less Ordinary employs workers with intellectual and physical disabilities, and with that comes a need for unique farming solutions.
Workers sometimes have problems with their fine motor skills, making tasks such as weeding, planting seeds or harvesting lettuce a challenge.
To help out, Shenandoah University graduate occupational therapy students are developing ways to address these issues.
Some of the solutions SU students have devised so far include a bottle that squirts out seeds, so it’s easier to properly disperse them, and cutting holes in a piece of cardboard to place over plant boxes so it’s easier to put seeds in one plant cell at a time. They also have found adaptive scissors to help the workers cut lettuce.
“It’s really simple solutions,” said Maya Wechsler, who owns the 24-acre Clarke County farm with her husband Greg Masucci. “This is so obvious, but we get so buried in the overall thing it’s hard for us to come up with these solutions ourselves.”
The couple moved to Bluemont from Washington, D.C., to create a simpler, safer, happier home for themselves and their two children. Their son, Max, is autistic and non-verbal. Along the way, Wechsler and Masucci decided to establish a farm where Max and other adults with developmental disabilities could find paid work, acceptance and meaning, which resulted in the creation of the nonprofit A Farm Less Ordinary in 2016.
Some of the crops grown at A Farm Less Ordinary include peppers, broccoli, carrots, chard, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, kale and dill. The farm also has goats and chickens.
The SU students have tried to simplify farm tasks so workers with various limitations can do them. SU student Claire Speranza, 23, of New Jersey, said it’s helpful to enter the farm as an outsider to create resolutions.
“We’ll come in and we’ll see what some employees are having a hard time with and just something as little as changing a little aspect of it can help exponentially,” Speranza said.
Tim Alger, 17, of Front Royal, who works at the farm, said he’s had an easier time planting seeds since the SU students made the cardboard cutout to better guide the process. Farm manager Heather Richardson said Tim was able to seed six trays on Wednesday with the cardboard cutout, compared to three trays he likely would have seeded without it.
“It’s phenomenal,” Richardson said.
Working at A Farm Less Ordinary is Tim’s first paid job. He said it feels good to get a paycheck, as long as he can get the dirt off his hands from the farm work.
“You see the hands, that’s the hands of a hardworking man,” Tim said, showing off his dirt stains from planting seeds.
Tim’s dad, John Alger, accompanies his son sometimes when he works at the farm and said it’s important that Tim is involved in purposeful work.
To help the workers water plants correctly, SU students drilled holes in plant boxes in strategic locations to drain excess water. Richardson said it’s not good to over water, otherwise the plants will drown and rot.
Richardson almost took away the task of watering, but drilling a few holes in the plant boxes is making it possible for the workers to do the job.
Richardson has been farm manager at A Farm Less Ordinary since 2017. One of her most rewarding moments so far was working with a shy, young farmer who came to the farm accompanied by her mother. Eventually, the young woman’s mother stopped accompanying her. When the young woman went to farmer’s markets, she wouldn’t talk to customers or help sell the produce. But by the end of the season, she was weighing produce and doing math to help sell the products, which was her biggest fear. When the young woman got her first paycheck, she and her mother cried.
“The fact that she was 24 [years old] and getting her first paycheck, we were able to provide that,” Richardson said, adding it was a beautiful moment.
A Farm Less Ordinary has 15 employees. Louis Milotte, of Hillsboro, is their supervisor. He grew up with a sister with a disability who he helped care for. Since then, he’s been involved working with people with mental and physical disabilities.
“It’s always a pleasure, it’s always a joy watching them learn, watching them discover that they have skills that they previously didn’t know they had or developing skills that will help them beyond the work that they have here,” Milotte said.
A lot has changed at A Farm Less Ordinary in the past year or so, and its owners have big dreams for the organization. The farm built a greenhouse in October, hired 13 people last year and began developing products such as gourmet pickles, jams, jellies and goat’s milk-infused soap. Masucci said he hopes to start making marinara sauce to sell.
Creating these products gives workers a new skill set, he added.
He said that while he would love to have workers stay on the farm, he’s equally content knowing he prepared them to work somewhere else. All of the farm workers make at least a minimum wage, if not better, Masucci said.
The farm’s goal is to develop a brand that says two things: That customers are getting a high quality product, and the product is largely created by people with developmental disabilities.
“A lot of these folks haven’t really been given chances. Our society hasn’t given them the opportunities that it could or should,” Masucci said.
For more information, visit afarmlessordinary.org.