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Community Farm Harvests Hope Among Developmentally Disabled

  • Susan Logue

Red Wiggler offers work, sense of purpose

On a recent overcast morning, workers at Red Wiggler Community Farm in Germantown, Md, walked up and down the rows of plants, looking for elusive peppers.

“I found one!” shouted one of the workers enthusiastically, holding a shiny green pepper up high for all to see.

“That’s a good one, Craig,” a younger worker, one of four support staff replied.

Community supported agriculture (CSA) has gained popularity in the U.S. since it was first introduced about 25 years ago. People invest in CSA farms by buying shares, which entitle them to a percentage of the harvest. It’s a way to get healthful, local produce on a regular basis.

Founded in 1996, Red Wiggler - a CSA farm near Washington, D.C. - supports the community not only by growing vegetables, but also by providing employment for the developmentally disabled.

“Red Wiggler worms create fertile soil where plants are likely to be successful," says Woody Woodroof, founder and executive director, explaining how the farm got its name. "We are a place where we help our community become successful.”

A meaningful job with a paycheck

From the very start, employing the developmentally disabled was part of the mission.

Developmentally-disabled residents of group homes in Maryland help prepare the fresh vegetables - from Red Wiggler Farm - for dinner.

Developmentally-disabled residents of group homes in Maryland help prepare the fresh vegetables - from Red Wiggler Farm - for dinner.

“I come in in the morning and take care of the chickens, and after I finish taking care of the chickens, we’ll harvest vegetables,” says David Ruch, one of the 15 growers who work here.

Woodroof says farming has become fashionable since he started Red Wiggler. “These guys are doing something people care about, and that self-esteem that is developed there, alongside the paycheck, is the most meaningful thing.”

The growers are all paid minimum wage or higher. They also get lots of exercise working outside in the fields. And they get to eat the food they grow here, not only while picking it, but also at home. At least once a week they take a box or bag of vegetables with them at the end of the day.

Sharing the bounty

Other developmentally disabled adults in Montgomery County get to eat the food as well. About once a week throughout the growing season, fresh produce from the farm is delivered to more than 450 adults who live in group homes.

Dinner at one Maryland group home features greens and turnips, salad with radishes and peppers, and sweet potatoes - all grown at Red Wiggler Farm.

Dinner at one Maryland group home features greens and turnips, salad with radishes and peppers, and sweet potatoes - all grown at Red Wiggler Farm.

Woodroof says the seeds to start Red Wiggler Farm were planted years ago, when he was working in a group home for developmentally disabled adults. “I noticed the food they were eating was not as healthy as it could be. And we had yards in the back, and I thought, ‘why don’t we start gardening?’”

Today, instead of just a backyard garden, Woodroof oversees six hectares of farmland. Seventy-five percent of the food goes to 120 customers, who support the farm through shares and collect their organic produce once a week from the farm.

Shareholder Dennis Luther leaves with his weekly supply of fresh, organic vegetables: beets, turnips, peppers,sweet potatoes and greens.

Shareholder Dennis Luther leaves with his weekly supply of fresh, organic vegetables: beets, turnips, peppers,sweet potatoes and greens.

“We grew right around $100,000 worth of produce last year,” Woodroof says.

With a budget of about $500,000, Red Wiggler still relies on additional funding from other sources, mostly private grants and donations.

“And as we increase our business slowly, we find that donations increase, too.”

Next year, thanks in large part to those donations, the farm will expand its season from 9 to 12 months, providing year-round employment for the workers here.

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