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US (IN): Hydroponic farm grows people and produce

Growing Opportunities, an urban farm in Bloomington, Indiana, puts disabled, low-income and unemployed/underemployed adults to work in its hydroponic greenhouse. As a result, it’s producing bumper crops of people with newfound confidence and skills.

A project of Bloomington’s South Central Community Action Program, Growing Opportunities works with clients who need help by teaching them both hard and soft vocational skills via the pathway of growing food. Its greenhouse is located at Stone Belt, an organization with 50 years of experience providing resources for those with disabilities.

Its second 20-week session started September 21. During that time, the group of 10 clients accepted into the program works in the greenhouse and learns in a classroom.

Nicole Wooten, Growing Opportunities’ manager, is amazed at the personal transformations that take place over such a short time.

“Many clients have not had jobs, and many have disabilities. Lots of them are nervous in the greenhouse, and get emotional if they make a mistake. Being in a work setting can be intimidating for those who have not had jobs before,” Wooten says. “But over time, we see a change in each person. By session’s end, the greenhouse is like a well-oiled machine.”

It needs to be, because produce is sold to local grocery stores and restaurants. Money earned helps to financially sustain the program.

Growing Opportunities is loosely modeled after Arthur & Friends, a program in northern New Jersey that facilitates agribusiness employment opportunities for disabled adults.

“Bloomington is a very big food community—I thought something like that would be awesome here,” says Wooten, who was hired two years ago to get the project off the ground.

They take anyone who qualifies as low-income by meeting federal poverty guidelines, placing a special emphasis on the chronically unemployed.

“Many of our clients need job and coaching initiatives, and have had a hard time getting and retaining jobs,” says Wooten. “They need to understand what it’s like to have co-workers and a supervisor. We want them to be independent in a work setting.”

Of a group of clients that finished the 20-week program in August, several clients have since applied for jobs elsewhere, which Wooten describes as a “huge accomplishment on its own.”

In this setting, urban agriculture ultimately serves as a means to a larger end—giving the clients of Growing Opportunities the skills to be self-sufficient and financially independent.

“The greenhouse is a tool for clients to learn what it’s like in a job setting,” says Wooten. “Many don’t want to work in a greenhouse for the rest of their lives. We teach them basic work skills and how to write a resume, how to interview, and other soft skills.”

But during the program, clients become steeped in the ins and outs of hydroponic growing and urban farming. Produce grown and sold includes Bibb lettuce and other lettuce varieties, kale and arugula. They have grown basil before, and might try again, Wooten says.

Growing Opportunities staff get the word out about its produce by making phone calls and providing free samples. Wooten noticed how easy it’s been to work with customers.

“Once they see what we have, it’s an easy sell,” she says.

Excess produce is donated to food pantries and soup kitchens.

Another focus is food education. Growing Opportunities secured a grant from the Indiana State Department of Agriculture to host nutrition workshops that focus on nutritious greens.

“These workshops are for people that need it the most,” says Wooten.

Currently, Growing Opportunities utilizes only one greenhouse, but Wooten would like to see the program expand into additional production space, as well as provide more post-session training for clients.

Source: Seedstock
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