Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Green acres is the place for me

By Louise Kinross

In 2014, Maya Wechsler and Greg Masucci made a drastic life change. They moved from a row house off a busy street in Washington, D.C. to a fixer-upper house on 24 acres in Bluemont, Va. They were tired of fighting for a good education for their son Max, now 10, who has autism, and wanted a simpler, safer life for Max and his sister Delilah. It wasn’t part of the initial plan, but since making the move they launched a non-profit called A Farm Less Ordinary, which hires about a dozen adults with intellectual disabilities to grow, harvest and sell organic vegetables and herbs. They hope to expand into producing jams, pickles and pesto. Maya and her husband Greg still work full-time jobs. BLOOM interviewed Maya to learn how the family swings its busy schedule.

BLOOM: I understand your husband was a realtor?

Maya Wechsler: He still is. He’s at a closing right now. I still work too. I telecommute with PricewaterhouseCoopers as a proposal manager.

BLOOM: You both work full-time, in addition to running the farm?

Maya Wechsler:
We do work around the clock, but we have a farm manager this year, which makes life a little more livable. She schedules the employees and about 20 volunteers.

BLOOM: Can you describe your son Max?

Maya Wechsler:
Max is non-verbal, with autism. He’s always looking for sensory input and needs to be running around outside. He needs full-time care and we have someone to do that while we’re working. The farm is for people like him, but I’m not sure if Max will ever be able to work here. I don’t think he has the attention to detail to be harvesting lettuces.

BLOOM: What does he love?

Maya Wechsler:
He loves jumping, screaming, going for walks and hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountain. He loves our animals and we’re thinking of increasing the number of animals we have. He loves music videos and listening to Harry Potter. He’s home-schooled, but not by us.

BLOOM: What was life like when you lived in the city?

Maya Wechsler:
We were fighting non-stop with the public school system. We were fighting to get a private placement for Max. A lot of bad things happened, which I’m not going to talk about. We were going to have to fight again to get more funding, and we couldn’t take it anymore. That’s why we decided to move out here.

BLOOM: How did you figure out when your son was so young that you wanted to make such a big life change? I have an adult son who could benefit greatly from your program, but I haven’t done anything so drastic.

Maya Wechsler:
When we moved to the country, having a non-profit farm wasn’t part of the plan. We just wanted to get out of the city and away from the traffic and fighting with the school. Then when we got here, we thought what a waste of the land. I have a comfortable history of teaching myself stuff—I taught myself photography and ran a photography business. We had always been doing advocacy for people beyond our son, and were politically active, and we didn’t really feel right about giving all of that up. There are so many teens and adults with intellectual disabilities who have a lot of time on their hands and a desperate desire to work.

BLOOM: How does the farm work?

Maya Wechsler:
We grow vegetables and herbs and are working on fruit. We’ve planted some blueberry and strawberry and raspberry plants and our goal is to move to value-added foods like jams and pickles and pesto. We’ll always grow veggies and we have a membership program where we deliver harvest once a week in crop boxes. We also have a contract with a food bank. Today we’re harvesting for a big delivery of fresh produce for low-income people. We also do a farmer’s market and a lot of fundraising, and hope to get more grants.

BLOOM: How many employees do you have?

Maya Wechsler: Twelve. They have intellectual or developmental disabilities or mild mental illness, such as anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. We’re not equipped for people with physical disability. Some people can drive themselves here, some people get rides, and one person comes from a group home with his job coach.

BLOOM: Is the work seasonal now?

Maya Wechsler:
We operate from mid-March to the end of October. We’re trying to raise money for a true greenhouse so we can grow through the winter and have people come all winter. We have the employees, if we can just get the funding. We run six days a week
Monday through Saturday. When they’re not working here, our growers have nothing to do all day long. They sit around, watch TV and get bored.

BLOOM: What do they get paid?

Maya Wechsler:
They start at minimum wage and that progresses, with initiative, up a dollar during the season. If they come back next season they get another dollar raise.

BLOOM: What has been the greatest challenge?

Maya Wechsler:
Doing it all while parenting and working day jobs. Your energy really takes a hit. First of all we’re exhausted at the end of the day, but we also have back aches and knee problems, so we’re trying to build this up while we still have the stamina, and then hand it off to someone to manage.

BLOOM: How does it compare to the life you had in the city?

Maya Wechsler:
As a family I’d say it’s busier than what we aimed for. But it’s also satisfying because there’s a cycle to the seasons that is pleasant. We literally slow down during the winter, according to the grain cycle. It’s also very satisfying because the kids can be outside freely—we don’t have to worry about them being kidnapped or hit by a bus.

BLOOM: How has it changed you?

Maya Wechsler:
I’ve become more self-reliant. These country skills that we scoff at as a city person, you realize how valuable they are. We’ve learned to do a whole lot ourselves—from fixing tractors to canning fruit.

BLOOM: I was surprised that you both work and manage the farm.

Maya Wechsler:
Autism costs a lot of money. There’s a lot of therapy, and we can’t afford to home school ourselves. Greg and I don’t even get paid from the farm yet. For anyone considering running a farm like this, at least one person has to work off the farm, especially in the United States, due to our health care system.

This is a fabulous Upworthy video about the family.