The Homestead just outside Des Moines, Iowa grows a full range of veggies and fruits for its CSA and retail markets, but that’s not all that keeps them busy. In fact, the farm’s main goal is providing meaningful employment for the adults with autism who work on the farm. Below, Eric Armbrecht, Homestead's Vocational Director, shares about their farm model, the benefits and challenges that come with the territory, and his hopes for the farms future.
Briefly describe your farm. We operate a CSA, grow greenhouse lettuce in the off-season, sell bedding plants, as well as poinsettias and hand-made wreaths at Christmas time. Our mission is to develop and implement solutions for people with autism. On our campus and farm, we do this by providing meaningful employment for adults with autism on a real working farm. We know of only 2 places in the world (one in Ohio and one in England) that have a working farm and greenhouse specifically for persons with autism.
What do you produce? Do you have a specialty? We produce a large variety (30-40) of fruits (including apples, red pears, native peaches, raspberries and strawberries), vegetables, greens, herbs and greenhouse-grown lettuce and microgreens. Our greenhouse-grown lettuce is our specialty.
How long have you been farming? My first full CSA season (and this type of farming) was 2008. I had previously been involved in other forms of conventional agriculture and gardening with persons with disabilities.
What are your markets? We market the majority of our produce through our CSA, and sell some through the Iowa Food Coop, Farm to Folk Collaboration, Gateway Market and Campbell’s.
Why did you get involved in CNG? CNG is a nice alternative for us that provides a less expensive way for us to be certified, less paperwork for us as a human services agency that already has tons of paperwork and a more fitting inspection process for a campus and farm that already has multiple agencies inspecting us where adults with autism live and work.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered. We have two large challenges: first, we have to develop ways for adults with autism to be able to complete real jobs on a fruit and vegetable farm. Second, we have to teach and train their staff members to help those adults with autism to work and be productive.
Talk about a change -big or small- that you made on the farm to improve operations. Some changes that have been fun to see the results of: first, I had a youth volunteer group build raised beds in our small high tunnel after it had been underwater and overtaken by weeds for 7 years in a row. We have gotten 3 seasons of crops from it every year since. We added redworms (two 6x4x3 foot bins) from which we’ve been able to use the castings. I designed a tumbler sifter that the guys can use to sift compost or worm castings.
What unexpected customer interactions have been especially rewarding? Customer interactions that have been rewarding have usually involved kids. The easiest way is for kids to come to the farm to eat strawberries, raspberries, Sungold cherry tomatoes, or even a vegetable like kohlrabi that kids might not usually eat. We also got a lot of pictures and thank you’s sent after a 600 pound shipment of CNG apples to the school snack program.
Favorite vegetable: kale. I can grow it in my home garden almost year-round without even covering it. I have harvested fresh kale from my home garden in December for several years. Fortunately, my wife and little kids eat it and even drink it in their breakfast smoothies.
Who is your mentor or hero in the farming world? I have a couple mentors/heroes in farming. I was inspired by Angela Tedesco who was a trailblazing CSA owner and operator in central Iowa before CSA’s became popular there. Also Dean and Judy Henry treated me and my family like their own family when it came to working and learning on their farm and orchard. Jason Jones, The Homestead’s previous and first farm manager, was integral at getting me to where I’m at today. Many farmers that are members of Practical Farmers of Iowa have contributed to my agricultural worldview.
What plans or hopes do you have for your farm in the future? I hope that we can expand our greenhouse-grown lettuce production and “brand” it for marketing purposes. I’d like to expand our redworm enterprise and add a high tunnel in the future. It’d be great to find an alternative energy source for our greenhouse. Broadly, I hope that I can contribute to finding/creating more year-round jobs for my employees with autism.