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Cleveland Crops: Training People with Disabilities to Farm

Amy Kleinman had never had a job with lasting appeal. Most recently, Kleinman, 28 and living with Asperger syndrome, taught at a day care center. “I was having a lot of trouble there,” says Kleinman. “Not with the kids—I loved the babies. I was having problems with the adults.”

Then, three years ago, Kleinman got a job at Cleveland Crops, an urban farm and nonprofit dedicated to community development and food security.good-food-vanguard-logo

“This is the first job I’ve had that keeps me getting up and wanting to go to work,” says Kleinman, who does everything from harvesting and washing vegetables to making deliveries to local restaurants. This season, she has been learning the basics of permaculture and worm composting.

She also helps New Product Development Supervisor, Nonni Casino, grow flowers and create swags and wreaths. “Someday Amy could work in a wonderful flower shop,” says Casino.

Cleveland Crops is just one of many farming projects in a city that has established itself as a mecca of urban farming. Not only does the rust belt city boast one of the largest contiguous urban farms in the country, but it has 20 farmers’ markets—all of which accept food stamps—and dozens of popular farm-to-table restaurants, many of which source ingredients from farms that are just blocks away. But what makes Cleveland Crops unique is that each of the 65 farmers who work there has a developmental disability of some sort—from autism and epilepsy to Down syndrome.

Founded four years ago by the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities and SAW, Inc., Cleveland Crops started with one acre in 2010 and will be farming a whopping 40 acres at a dozen locations around Cleveland by the end of this year. The farms—which include a 15,000 square-foot greenhouse and half a dozen hoop houses—provide pesticide-free produce for local restaurants, farmers’ markets, and a 300-member CSA. (They also sell produce to a popular grocery store in the area called Nature’s Bin.)

Traditionally, Clevelanders with developmental disabilities would have been trained for jobs in the manufacturing sector, but those jobs have been waning for decades, while urban farming is on the upswing. And in Cleveland, as in other parts of the country, demand for local, pesticide-free food is on the rise.

Cleveland chef/restaurateur Zach Bruell has worked with Cleveland Crops since it started four years ago and now uses the organization’s produce in six of his seven restaurants. “They’re real farmers, real agronomists,” says Bruell. He’s asked the crew to custom plant specialty vegetables like mâche, mico-greens, and pasilla bajio peppers.

Al Ives, the chef de cuisine at Bruell’s Italian restaurant Chinato, orders kale, mustard greens, lettuce, micro-greens, tomatoes, herbs, beets, radishes, squashes, and carrots. “Pretty much anything they’ve got, I’ll take it,” says Ives, who bases his weekly specials around what they have.

Cleveland Crops is meant to be a temporary training venue. The goal, according to executive director Rich Hoban, is to train adults with developmental disabilities for jobs either in the urban farming sector, the food service industry, or—perhaps in Kleinman’s case—at a high-end flower shop.

“Our long-term objective is to get people permanent employment with other businesses,” says Hoban. For now—maybe because Cleveland Crops is the largest farming operation in the county and needs more staff than other area farming businesses—most trainees have stuck around. And that’s working out okay for most of them. Whereas some organizations that hire people with developmental disabilities get a federal waiver to pay below the minimum wage, Kleinman, like the other 64 trainees at Cleveland Crops, earn minimum wage ($7.95 an hour in Ohio).

IMG_0025Of course, the employees are also gaining transferable skills. Case in point: The organization has just opened a 5,000 square-foot Food Innovation Center—a commercial kitchen complete with three double convection ovens, a double walk-in fridge, and 11 commercial dehydrators. Trainees are already learning how to dehydrate fruits and kale (for kale chips) to be sold at farmers’ markets and CSA shares this summer. Soon they’ll learn how to make soups, barbecue sauce, salsa, and tomato sauce. They’re also co-packing for local food businesses like Twenty-4 Zen, a granola company.

Raizel Michelow, Twenty-4 Zen’s owner, has her granola sealed, packed, and labeled at the new kitchen. “These are well-trained workers with lots of experience,” says Michelow. “They’re so efficient—they’ve helped me triple my business.”

For the workers, many of whom live in food deserts, there’s another benefit to working at Cleveland Crops: access to fresh, free food.

“I never used to eat tomatoes,” says Kleinman. Now, she says she regularly takes home veggies she didn’t eat fresh before she had this job. “It’s quality control,” she says joking. “I ate an asparagus stalk right out in the field the other day.”

Casino, who is a chef and food justice activist, offers employees misshapen produce and dehydrated foods like kale chips, which are tossed in an addictive topping of nutritional yeast, sea salt, lemon juice, and cashew bits. “This is not just about growing food,” she says. “This is about educating the people who really need this quality food.”

Now that the kitchen is open, Casino will start making soups and other healthy prepared foods, which she intends to tempt trainees with.

One of the organization’s biggest fans is city councilman Joe Cimperman. “They are at the forefront of the urban agriculture movement in Cleveland. But it’s not just that they’re taking over abandoned lots,” says Cimperman. “They’ve been an instigator of economic and community development.” Just one example: Before Cleveland Crops converted an abandoned school into the organization’s first farm, there were eight condemned or foreclosed homes surrounding the property. Three years later, those homes have all been purchased or rehabbed.

“Bricks were falling on the sidewalk and hitting people. It was absolute disinvestment,” recalls Cimperman of the school. “People used to drop off burned-up cars in the parking lot.” Today, that lot is covered with hoop houses filled with vegetable starts. “It’s beautiful,” says Cimperman. “They’re producing beautiful stuff!”

One thought on “Cleveland Crops: Training People with Disabilities to Farm

  1. As a father with a young child with Down syndrome, I often wonder about her future in employment. Within ‘our circle’, all you hear about is manufacturing and very low level entry positions for people with disabilities. I commend Cleveland Corps and the support that Councilman Cimperman. It gives a lot if hope to people who usually do not have any. Hopefully, with the support of many others within the community, this program will continue to grow and expand. Kudos to those restaurant owners who have opened their hearts, minds and doors to experience what others live on a daily basis. Bless you all!!