Back to the Land: Mentally Disabled Adults Thrive on New Farm That Teaches Real Skills

Student farmers with Down syndrome, autism, and other impairments connect with the land and build real-world skills.

Orkestai farmer Erin Staub. (Photo: Olivia Kimmel)

Oct 16, 2014· 3 MIN READ
A Wolfe has covered arts, entertainment, and politics for Good, Vice, Flaunt, and other publications.

When Fritz Trinklein was searching for programs for his adult son Ahren, a 29-year-old with Down syndrome, he was disappointed to find mostly group homes with little opportunity for Ahren to be truly enriched—he wanted places that would help his son gain skills and confidence.

“A lot of the opportunities out there are transient,” Trinklein said. “They didn’t afford Ahren the opportunity of growth or were staid and unenthusiastic. We have a lot of negative feelings about these that I won’t say.”

It's a familiar struggle for parents and caregivers of legally mentally disabled adults—those with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, Down syndrome, or another diagnosed impairment—who must plan vocational, therapeutic, and care programs for their children. Ahren had been enrolled in any number of programs that supposedly taught life skills, but his father found they were piecemeal and didn’t seem to take Ahren’s future into consideration.

Then, by word of mouth, Trinklein stumbled up Orkestai Farm.

“At Orkestai, we immediately saw there’s a familiarity, a future,” Trinklein said.

Set on a pristine acre of land in Oyster Bay, N.Y., the working farm is quietly transforming the lives of neurodiverse and disabled adults by training and employing them in agriculture. With a parcel of land rented from the Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park, farmers Erin Staub and Alethea Vasilas started their inaugural season in 2014 with 15 student farmers, including Ahren Trinklein.

Staub had worked in an after-school program for autistic children, and Vasilas was certified in somatic therapy and had worked for years for a neurodiverse woman, Rachel Kaplan. The impetus for Orkestai—and its experimental precursor, SustainAbility Farm—came from Kaplan.

“One afternoon, Alethea took Rachel to her father’s organic farm. Rachel went home that night and told her mother, ‘I want to be a farmer,’ ” Staub said. The result was a groundbreaking farm, SustainAbility, that sought to train, offer physical therapy to, and employ neurodiverse adults.

While many programs for the neurodiverse or disabled focus on caregiving for the moment—which can amount to little more than babysitting—Orkestai recognizes these adults as a vital part of the community, the workforce, and the future by investing in their learning.

Yet the idea of connecting farming to mental health is a bit of a throwback. When California opened a state mental health hospital in Napa Valley in 1875, which would have housed many who today would be more properly diagnosed as autistic or mentally impaired rather than clinically insane, it did so on 2,000 acres of lush farmland and taught residents how to work the land.

Nowadays, Ahren works two half days a week with his fellow student farmers, from sowing to harvest, on a tree-lined clearing with “big grassy swaths in between each row, so students have room to move freely around the farm,” Staub said.

Cherry tomatoes, chives, green beans, tomatillos, and more grow on the farm and are tended by the student farmers. They learn the trade from top to bottom while getting exercise, interacting with peers, and taking moments to revel in being the “breadwinner” of the family. The harvest is sold through a CSA, which boasts 22 members and will probably have 30 or more next season, so Ahren and his fellow farmers enjoy the secondary pride of providing for other area families.

“Creativity is being applied for the first time in the field,” Trinklein said. “We have so many people who can do so much, and now they can participate. It’s a resource we’ve never tapped into.”

On special community days, parents and other family are invited to join the student farmers to get a sense of their child’s development.
“There was a row of mulch, and he had to shovel and spread the whole row. He had to see the task, complete the task, and feel good about it, and everyone could see and appreciate the results,” Trinklein said.
For Ahren’s family, it’s a stark difference from what Trinklein calls monolithic institutions that just take children for the day—basically giving them busywork for the remainder of their lives. Since starting at Orkestai, Ahren has become a kind of nutritional aficionado, sharing his bounty of bok choy, sunchokes, and tomatoes with his family and becoming known for his fresh-made salsa.
You’d think there would be more programs like Orkestai that get frustrated parents such as Trinklein energized, but they are few. Most of the existing programs are ingrained in an old way of thinking. The idea that those with neurological or mental impairments are just normal variants in the human gene pool is quite new; sociologist Judy Singer coined the term “neurodiversity” in the late 1990s. Programs that embrace this shift in thinking—investing in the futures of the differently abled—are new and only get green-lit by government agencies after they present thorough evidence of professional experience with the disabled, a solid plan and support, and rigorous testimony from grateful parents such as Trinklein.

“This is the forerunner,” Trinklein said. “If others knew about it, it could change their lives.”

But the farm is small and still working on its goal of raising animals to become a year-round endeavor. Despite its modest success, Orkestai is a shoestring operation working out its kinks, and it’s transitioned to a suggested donation for student farmers.

As the program is still in its infancy, it’s difficult to quantify results, but Staub and Vasilas say they can feel Orkestai’s success in the feedback from the surrounding community and from the outlook of their student farmers. One student left the farm to pursue a job with a state landscaping crew, while another found a position at a grocery store, keeping in line with their new passions for food and hard work.

Orkestai and parents like Trinklein hope others take up the cause. The key, it seems, is similar to the mantra of small farms all over the country: Focus on hyper-local support and people will show up, ready to pitch in where needed.

“The state likes it, the parents like it, the arboretum likes it,” Trinklein said. “Think of what could happen if others allocated just an acre of land for something like this. It’s worth trying.”