At Crown Point Ecology Center, an organic farm and education center in Bath, a slender young man pauses on a hot, hazy morning to wipe his brow.
He leans into his spade, and rips into hard clumps of soil.
Then his job coach kneels next to him in the dirt as he tries a new challenge: planting.
"So that’s what you can do here,” she softly tells him. “Scoot this down, and just start dropping them in the holes and then I’ll come behind you, OK?”
The work goes well, and Hattie’s Gardens manager Nathan Edge says that’s typical.
“They are all eager to learn. They’re excited with any new tasks that we bring to them.”
Hattie’s Gardens is one of the Hattie Larlham Foundation’s many vocational programs for people with developmental disabilities.
The foundation headquartered in Mantua was established more than 50 years ago by an intensive care nurse at Ravenna’s Robinson Memorial Hospital. She took 10 children into her farmhouse to care for them. Today, with a 35 million dollar annual budget, the nonprofit serves 1500 people in 20 Ohio counties.
Growing greens and self-esteem
This is the third growing season for Hattie’s Gardens at Crown Point. It’s a small plot. The group started with just 450 square feet and expanded this year to an acre and a half.
Edge says the seven participants learn a lot.
“Urban gardening or agriculture, but more so learning how to work in a group as a team, learning what it takes to really maintain a steady job, and I think I’ve seen a lot of these guys grow more responsible, more independent in not only their work lives, but also their personal lives.”
Edge makes sure they learn how to use farm tools and basic gardening skills.
“But also that they maintain those skills. And if we need them to, they can work independent of us… We have a wide range of folks that we serve. So we try to match the specific person’s challenges to different tasks that we need done, but we also try to challenge, you know, help us out with something new or learn a new skill.”
Edge introduces us to 22-year-old John McKim who says he likes the feel of the soil.
“Watching the circle of life of growing stuff from seeds spring forth from the earth and it’s just like a natural feeling that I have.”
He intends to make a living as a farmer.
“I’m looking at further on down the road maybe one day breaking off from Hattie’s and starting my own farm… which I’m naming after my grandfather who taught me everything that I know.”
John’s favorite chore is tending to the cucumbers.
“Making sure they’re developing right, have that nice golden, Irish, emerald green color which means they’re at the peak of freshness for harvest.”
Chefs and foodies appreciate the quality
Chefs praise the quality of what John is growing. The Blue Door Café in Cuyahoga Falls and the Tavern of Richfield are supplied by Hattie’s Gardens.
At Hattie’s Cafes, adults with developmental disabilities get vocational training in food service. The Hattie Larlham Foundation has four snack shops in Akron and one on Lakeside Avenue in Cleveland.
Hattie’s Cafes get fruits, vegetables, and herbs from Hattie’s Gardens, and Nathan Edge sets up stands at farmers’ markets to sell what’s left.
“About two dozen varieties of tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, regular slicing tomatoes, but of course a lot of heirloom varieties. We have peppers. We have your traditional sweet bell pepper, green and red. We have some bullhorn peppers, which are also sweet peppers. Jalapenos, cayenne, and a few other interesting varieties that you might not find at your store traditionally. We have pole beans, bush beans, yellow, green and purple varieties. We’re growing spinach. We grow about a dozen varieties of lettuce, butter crisp, summer crisp lettuce and then traditional romaine lettuce.”
Edge says many of the farmers weren’t familiar with vegetables until they grew them.
Like one young man who came to work in Hattie’s Gardens who’d moved to Akron recently from a food desert on the south-side of Chicago.
“I don’t know if he could have told you the difference between a tomato plant and a carrot probably, but he’s grown and started learning how to plant vegetables, how we harvest, and he’s now one who will bring vegetables home every day to his family.”
The farmers-in-training can take home all the fresh produce they want, and that ties into the mission of Hattie’s Gardens’ host. The Dominican Sisters of Peace established Crown Point in 1989 to engage people with nature, and to renew earth and spirit.
Hattie Larlham CEO Dennis Allen is also working with Crown Point’s neighbor, Old Trail School, and the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, not only to employ people with disabilities, but also to teach children about sustainable small-scale farming and good nutrition.
“We’re looking really at how do we educate. How do we take what we’re learning here at Crown Point, what we’re learning at Old Trail School, and take that into the inner city.
You can buy what Hattie’s gardeners have grown at the Quark Cultural Center in Cuyahoga Falls and the Countryside Conservancy Farmers’ Market at Akron’s Highland Square.
And that’s this week’s Quick bite. Next week we’ll explore the ritual and flavors of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.