Farming felt deeply, and without limits
Growing healthy food with people working at the top of their game provides special education for this young farmer seeking a career that is engaging, dynamic and thrilling.

By Shannon Varley

Overwhelmed by the work, buoyed by the beauty of touch

Early on in my first season at the farm, I was so overwhelmed with responsibility and I doubted myself so intensely that I had to make a beeline to the greenhouse to catch my breath, refocus, and calm down. I just didn’t see how I could manage here. How could I manage the fields and give these folks a quality experience as well? What had I signed up for? I wasn’t cut out for this. Just thinking about managing myself and the fields was enough to send me over the edge. And the seasons are unforgiving. You can’t just let something slide. You can’t just forget about something because somebody doesn’t feel like planting that day.

As I half-ran, half-walked to the greenhouse to “get some flats” (read “succumb to explosion of tears”), I hadn’t realized the job coach had sent a grower along to help with my “flat” task. Suddenly, I felt a small hand gripping mine. It was a particularly surprising —and moving—gesture because the grower gripping my hand at that moment was someone who never gets within 25 feet of anyone. Physical closeness is extremely uncomfortable for her. And now, suddenly, she walked with me and held my hand until we got to the greenhouse. Once we got to the greenhouse, she was around the corner and gone, but she held it until we got there. I cried later that night in the greenhouse alone. The beauty of that moment was too powerful to ignore. We are never “too good” for this kind of work.

I went into the field the next morning with restored confidence and faith.


Training tomatoes
From left to right: 2004 volunteer Quinn Marshall, 2004 field assistant Beth Kilmore, and Shannon Varley

Posted February 16, 2006: The stars and planets must have been aligned in my favor on the November morning I received the impromptu phone interview.

I’d been up late waiting tables, as most of us mid-twenty year olds in between educational and professional endeavors find themselves doing these days. I groggily answered the interview questions for the farm management position with one and two syllable words. I tried to focus, though, in my head (and my naiveté), I thought I wanted a challenging, exciting policy position on the threshold of positive change. Not farming. Or so I thought.

I had just finished my master's degree in environmental law. I wanted to give myself some foundation in sustainable agriculture and food related issues. So along with a good friend (turned business partner) I started a small CSA and market garden outside of Columbus, Ohio, two years before I started graduate school. We called our little truck patch Silver Tale Farm. It turned out to be a great learning experience: emotionally and physically crippling at times, beautifully rewarding at other times. In the end, it proved all together too much for two 22 year-olds who needed more on a Friday night than sitting around peeling onions for next day’s market.

Seeking a worthy position

We either thought we had gotten what we needed out of that adventure, or that it was time to move on to the next thing, or if we didn’t move on soon, we’d strangle each other. I know that for myself, the romantic veneer of farming had worn off. And very truthfully, the heart issue was that, as Wendell Berry pointedly addressed in the November 2005 Smithsonian, I was a young person that so wrongfully thought “I’m too good for this kind of work.”

If we nourish ourselves as well as the land and continue to work with the ever-present forces of nature, there are no “limits” to what we can do.

At Silver Tale Farm, I had learned to struggle with the season and curse machinery and rejoice in the fact that you had gotten what you needed to get done before you had to hunt for the flashlight. I knew what it was like to have your happiness and livelihood teeter on the edge due to undependable and unpredictable weather patterns.

In graduate school, I learned about NEPA and the Clean Water Act and the ins and outs of land use law. And so NOW, I applied along the East Coast for positions that combined all of those experiences together and that I thought would be dynamic and engaging and thrilling. It was odd that I had even applied for this farm management position. I had cross-referenced the non-profit farm organization three times while job-hunting and researching farm programs for my neighbor who had disabilities. I suppose I kept that coincidence locked away in my consciousness because I kept right on answering those interview questions.

Perhaps I heard something that morning that wasn’t clear to me then. Apparently my responses were enough to merit an in-person interview. Could I come to the farm? Three hour drive…great…yes….I’ll be there.

Seized by farming enthusiasm

I wanted the job as soon as I got there. As I was greeted by a wonderful group of staff and growers on a cold November morning, all of the farming enthusiasm I had long forgotten resurfaced ten-fold. The job seemed challenging, rewarding, engaging, and thrilling…pretty much encompassing all of the qualities I was expecting to find elsewhere. It was a farm management position that came with great depth and demanded much more than I probably realized at the time.

I prayed that I had made an impression that would end in an offer. I forgot all about those dreamy policy jobs with the pretty suits and heels, I wanted my Carharts and wellies. When my phone rang a few hours later, I wanted to pick up the receiver and scream “YES!” before I had any idea who it was that was that was even calling me. Fortunately, it was Red Wiggler and it was an offer and I took the job that day.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned throughout this entire experience was clear to me that day though I wouldn’t have known it then. To act on intuition with complete abandon is sometimes, in and of itself, an accomplishment in this muffled world. It’s recognizing the sheer magic, power, and significance of something so deep within calling out and saying, “This is it,” I can still feel the breath catch in my throat.

Such is my fate at Red Wiggler.

A community farm outside of Washington, D.C., Red Wiggler Community Farm ( exists to create meaningful employment for adults with developmental disabilities. Just as an earthworm creates fertile ground in its place, our farm creates fertile ground to nourish a healthy and inclusive community. We grow and sell vegetables, flowers, and herbs to a 72-member CSA, sell to local restaurants, host a number of summer youth programs, and donate hundreds of pounds of food each summer to area food banks. All of this is accomplished by focusing on the abilities of our staff, volunteers, and seven-person crew with developmental disabilities, the “growers.”

Possibilities change with seasons

At Red Wiggler, as on any farm, the sequence of seasons provides a clear beginning and end for tasks, enables an enormous sense of accomplishment, and creates a ripe environment for discovery.

Here’s an example of how we split job responsibilities: During planting season, for instance, bulbs (including garlic, shallots, onions, etc.), potatoes, and winter and summer squash are planted by the growers. They are larger and easier to handle. The farm manager is responsible for the smaller seeded crops (salad mix, chard, beets, spinach, etc.) although there are instances when a grower might be interested in helping out with those chores and we give it a whirl.

The growers' responsibilities also include laying mulch, placing and replacing hoops and Remay® fabric in the fields, hilling potatoes, weeding, weed-whacking, building deer fences, pounding tomato stakes, taking out tomato stakes, prepping the hoop houses, and seeding. Not to mention the thrice-weekly harvest, the twice-weekly CSA preparation, and the bagging and labeling of vegetables for five months a year. And I’m quite certain that I’m forgetting a thousand little things that keep this place running.

We all share the responsibility, it all gets done, and we are able to produce food for the hundreds of people who depend on us to grow their vegetables, flowers, and herbs. Our growers are hard workers. This farm would not exist without them. Sure, we have our challenges. Any person who knows a thing or two about growing food will tell you that a garden of any kind is not complete without its challenges.

I knew something about large-scale gardening when I arrived at Red Wiggler, but I knew nothing about working with people with developmental disabilities. What I do know now is that it works, that it is magical, and that I feel genuinely rewarded by this interaction of soil, and plants, and people. To dig the first potato, to taste the sweetness of the first sugar snap, to sell the first tomato of the season….isn’t that why all of us garden folks do what we do? That magic is only compounded by the addition of seven people who labored to produce those season “firsts,” who recognize this awesome work, and who might have questioned at one point or another if they would ever find a job that fit their interests and abilities and they would enjoy. A question all of us have pondered.

“Limit” is a word that stifles

I’ve learned that “limit” is only a word that stifles very real possibility. This is, perhaps, the grandest lesson I know. I have found that sincere, honest, hard work dissipates any notion of “limit.” If we nourish ourselves as well as the land and continue to work with the ever-present forces of nature, there are no “limits” to what we can do. We can. Red Wiggler is a beautiful thing because there were and are people who believe beyond average possibility.

To know that this work produces pure, nutritious food, and that the cycle is connected to a vision and a theory and a practice on a much larger scale is a blessing and a privilege.

I’ve managed to transition from chronic impatience to mysterious patience. I’ve mustered faith in myself, in the fields, and in the changing seasons. Somehow, it all gets done. Somehow this beautiful thing unfolds each morning. This farm has unlocked all of those things that make me feel better as a person: faith, patience, compassion, confidence, humor. Things that I have been conditioned to believe have little value in today’s working world. Things that I would have never found locked away in an office somewhere.

It feels right to touch the earth and manage the food it produces and understand fully the importance of managing our land responsibly and attentively. To feel the physical fatigue of having planted, weeded, and harvested is to know work that is real and meaningful. To know that this work produces pure, nutritious food, and that the cycle is connected to a vision and a theory and a practice on a much larger scale is a blessing and a privilege. To know that your day-to-day routine is one that contributes to cleaner water, cleaner food, and cleaner soil is invaluable. To be dirty and tired and sore at the end of the day and to know that it serves a purpose, there is a reason, and it is good, is extraordinary.

This is how I rationalize my master’s degree, and the loans I have accrued to pay for it. In many unique ways, I am continuing my education and expanding on that vision to be better equipped to understand policy and law from the ground up. I don’t know if I’ll ever put this knowledge to use in a practical way. Somehow, I don’t think I will. And that’s OK with me now. It just took me a while to realize what value there truly is in growing good food. Children and young adults aren’t encouraged enough to pursue these things. We’re taught that we’re too good for these things. What a thought!

In a little while, I will go back into the fields for another season. I have placed my seed orders and I’m preparing the grow room. We rearranged our management program of our expanding CSA to allow for more grower-customer interaction, in order to develop the connections between vegetables and people—and people and people--further. It’s so important, and it’s so amazing. Some say your second season is actually harder because you anticipate its being easier. I feel like I am going to find truth in that.

I’m looking forward to the rhythm of the spring and summer seasons-watching the fields transform from their barren winter appearance into something fertile and green and alive. And watching the rhythm of the people who work those fields, and who eat from those fields, and who appreciate the beauty of what those fields represent.