Rising Harvest Farms in Cleveland provides job training for people with disabilities

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Rising Harvest Farms in Cleveland provides job training for people with disabilities

April 27, 2013 [Olivera Perkins, The Plain Dealer]

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The long, rototilled rows wait in anticipation of the first planting season at Rising Harvest Farms in Cleveland’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood.

When the threat of frost disappears sometime in mid-May, workers and volunteers will deposit crops into the neatly mounded rows — 30 inches wide and set a foot apart. One of the latest entrants into Cleveland’s growing urban agricultural community, the 2.3-acre farm on Memphis Avenue and West 41 Street is the former site of Memphis School, which was demolished.

It may take a few years to build up the soil into fertile farmland, but still the first year holds promise — for the crops and for the people with disabilities who are learning jobs skills by growing produce and raising chickens.

Workers have already begun the process of amending the soil with worm-infused compost. Signs of hope spring from the soil in the hoop house, a greenhouse with plastic sheeting, instead of glass. Though planted from seeds only a week earlier, tomato plants — looking like little, green whirlybirds — are coming up.

“Tomatoes usually don’t germinate that fast,” said farm manager Michael Bartunek. “We must be doing something right.”

The farm’s mission is to not only be a self-sustaining venture, but provide job training for people with disabilities. Rising Harvest Farms is a subsidiary of Koinonia Homes Inc., a major private provider of services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Cuyahoga County. In addition to the Cleveland site, the organization runs a 2.6-acre farm in Strongsville, which opened in 2010.

Six people recruited from Koinonia’s employment services department will rotate into the Memphis Avenue location for four-month internships, learning agricultural skills that can be used to land jobs in related areas, like working at a nursery, at a garden center or with animals, said Jerry DeLiberato, the organization’s vice president of business development. Two job coaches assigned to the farm will help prepare participants to make the transition into jobs at such businesses.

“They are committed to working; they just need to be given the opportunity,” he said of the interns and other people with disabilities.

But opportunities for the disabled are often few, according to statistics released last week by the U.S. Labor Department, based on a survey taken in May 2012. It found that only about 18 percent of people with a disability were employed. Part of the reason the figure was so low was that a greater number of people with disabilities tend to be 65 or older, the report found. However, employment rates were “much lower among persons with a disability for all age groups”.

Margaret McDonald, a farm intern, said even if they are successful in landing a job, people with disabilities often face other obstacles. Co-workers, supervisors and others often are reluctant to accept that people with disabilities can be an asset in the workplace.

She remembers one assignment in which some staff assumed McDonald couldn’t pick up what was going on and declined to interact with her as an adult. They often altered their speech patterns and vocabulary, addressing her as if she were a toddler.

“They were treating me a like I was 2,” said McDonald, 22. “They wouldn’t give me time to show how good I was.”

But that hasn’t been the case at Rising Harvest Farms. And it won’t be, said farm supervisor Andrea Heim.

“I have really high expectations for them,” she said. “When they leave here, they are ready to get a job.”

Heim said that raising the bar is important because many people with disabilities have internalized others’ low expectations of them. And as the target of low expectations, they have, in return, lowered their own standards, she said.

“They can get so lazy,” Heim said, adding that it is easy to do when others aren’t demanding they meet higher standards.

Life on the farm is always in motion. Planting. Watering. Caring for the chickens. It’s a seven-day-a-week operation in which neither summer’s broil nor winter’s bite offer an excuse for respite. There is always work to be done.

“I like it here because it’s nice — except when it gets cold,” intern Eddica Martinez said with a grin.

The farm officially went into operation in January, shortly after the hoop houses went up.

Increasing swatches of the urban landscape are becoming more bucolic as Cleveland’s multitude of vacant lots — often the result of demolishing rotting foreclosed properties — are fostering agricultural pursuits. Frequently they are community gardens, but the segment of “market gardens,” designed to generate income, continues to grow, saidMorgan Taggart, program specialist in agriculture and natural resources at the Ohio State University Extension in Cleveland.

In the past seven years, she said, urban farms have gained in popularity because of “a confluence of a lot of different factors.” They include the Cuyahoga Land Bank’s helping market garden projects acquire parcels, as it did for Rising Harvest Farms.

Municipalities’ updating of regulations and policies so these farms can raise livestock or operate farm stands also has sparked growth in urban farming, as has the Cleveland water department’s program offering reduced rates to market gardeners, Taggart said.

She said an intangible factor also pushes this agriculture segment forward: the “can-do spirit” of many urban farmers. Most people see vacant lots and lament about what once was. Urban farmers see something else.

“When they see that vacant lot, they see themselves as agents of change to make something happen in their neighborhood,” Taggart said.

In an era of megafarms, which have pushed many family farms out of business, can urban farms of a few acres make it?

Taggart said yes. These farms have gross revenue between $3 and $10 per square food. She said the most successful farms have products they can sell from their bounty, including salsa, salad dressing and pesto.

Despite the idealism drawing many to urban agriculture, business acumen is what will sustain them. The extension office holds a 12-week market gardener training program once a year, focused not only on agriculture, but things like budgets and marketing. Twenty graduated from the first class eight years ago. This year’s class had 35, and a list is already forming for the next class in January, Taggart said.

She said farming smaller plots can be labor intensive because machinery and equipment is often made for more acreage. In addition to the interns and staff, Rising Harvest Farms hires two seasonal workers and has put the call out for groups and individuals to volunteer.

Building markets for the produce and other crops is also a priority, said DeLiberto, the Koinonia business development official. The farm has a market basket share program, in which people receive a weekly allotment of Rising Harvest Farm crops and those from other local farms. The farm intends to sell food on a retail basis, as well as to restaurants and to businesses and institutions with food establishments, said Bartunek, the farm manager .

The farm is also selling eggs. Now they come from area farms, but they’ll come from the farm — in a month or so — when the 125 Black Australorp chickens will be mature enough to begin laying brown eggs high in Omega-3s and low in cholesterol. He said the farm holds the largest license for poultry in the city.

Bartunek said some residents were concerned about farm animals in the city, but they now welcome their new neighbors. The free-range birds live in a hoop coop, a big chicken coop that looks like a small hoop house. Unless you peer in the opening to the unit, you won’t know the chickens — with shinny black features and a greenish sheen — are there. You can barely hear “the girls,” as they’re know around the farm. And you won’t smell them because Bartunek said the wood chips lining the coop are changed frequently.

“They are quiet, docile and friendly,” he said of the chickens.

McDonald and Martinez said caring for the birds is perhaps their favorite thing about working on the farm.

McDonald didn’t know whether she wanted to work there. An animal lover, she arrived thinking about how life on the farm would be so far away from her dream job of working at the luxury Barkley Pet Hotel & Day Spa in Orange Village.

But such hesitation disappeared as soon as she saw the delivery that had arrived that day.

“I saw a box of baby chickens,” she said. “Oh, yeah, I want to work here big time. The chickens won my heart over.”

Koinonia is set on winning hearts as well — those of prospective employers.

McDonald and Martinez’ internships will be up in June, and the hope is that the skills they learned on the farm will have made them more marketable. Konionia wants life on the farm to prove that with a little nurturing; more than just the crops can thrive.

“The whole concept is to help integrate people with developmental disabilities into local businesses,” DeLiberato said.