Raising food, growing people
in helping disabled people learn independence
By STEVE BROWN
TUMWATER, Wash. -- As a work crew brought in some freshly harvested squash from the field, Ann Vandeman greeted each person by name and expressed how much she appreciated their hard work.
The harvesters headed in toward lunch, and Vandeman paused, looked after them and said, "That fellow you just met -- Richard -- is 67 years old. He says this is his first paying job."
Giving people with developmental disabilities a chance to work is what Left Foot Organics is all about. Vandeman, executive director, started the farm from scratch in 2001 after her daughter Geraldine was born with Down syndrome.
"The mission is what
drives this organization," she said. "Our workers learn vocational skills and social skills, they make some money and they learn what it is to have a job."
Vandeman had 18 workers this summer: seven recruited from nearby high schools and 11 with developmental or intellectual disabilities.
"We're just a vocational program, not residential. If we could someday supply housing, that would meet some more needs," she said. "But our aim is to get them more integrated into the community, not segregated."
Vandeman grew up in nearby Olympia, was active in 4-H and FFA and went to Washington State University. Going on to the University of California-Berkeley, she earned her doctorate in agricultural economics.
After her daughter's birth, she said, office work no longer appealed to her. She wanted to be "producing something other than reports about data, and I wanted to be working with people with disabilities."
The first year she rented 11/2 acres near Tenino, just south of the farm's current location, and she and her crew made $16,000 in sales at farmers' markets and through a community supported agriculture program.
Left Foot Organics, a nonprofit, now rents 5 acres from Nelson Farms, earning $78,000 in gross sales last year.
Sales makes up about 40 percent of the farm's budget, which is supplemented by grants, individual contributions and one major fundraiser.
Grants come from private foundations such as the Lassen Foundation, United Way, Rotary, Kiwanis and the Bennett Family Foundation. The fundraiser -- this year on Oct. 9 -- was a benefit dinner and auction called the Fun Farm Formal.
"We did have a USDA grant with GRuB -- Garden-Raised Bounty -- which is an urban youth gardening program, but it ended last year," she said.
The farm is like most other organic farms, using such tools as crop rotation and cover cropping.
"Building the soil is the biggest constraint," Vandeman said. "We use drip irrigation in the fields, but it doesn't work so well for cover crops. An irrigation gun would work better."
She gets her farmworkers involved in every part of the operation.
Once a week, a staffer and a crewmember take the truck to five or six businesses to pick up vegetable waste, coffee grounds, bakery waste and wood chips, for the compost.
"And they play active roles at our three farmers' markets in Tacoma, Tumwater and Dupont," she said.
The Proctor Farmers' Market in Tacoma is the largest market for Left Foot Organics. Jessica Troy, manager of the Proctor market, said she has been impressed by the farm's presence.
"Ann involves her people in everything from the farm work to the sale," she said. "A market thrives on good relationships, and they add a lot to the mix."
Troy said she also enjoys the new varieties of produce Left Foot Organics provides. "People look for them specifically," she said.
"We work almost year-round," Vandeman said. "If we had more land, we could keep this going for a little longer, keeping half the land in cover crops or rotation and having the other half in production."
Everyone works on his or her own schedule, she said, working according to their own abilities, stamina and available transportation.
"All we ask is everybody does their best. This is a real-life workplace with special supports to help them be successful."