Farm to able

Using vertical farming to train adults on autism spectrum to work in agriculture

Growing up means growing vertically to one organization serving individuals with autism in New Jersey. Taking an approach to the farming business that’s novel and pairing it with a first-of-its-kind social initiative, Greens Do Good is giving adults on the autism spectrum a chance to work on an indoor hydroponic vertical farm in Hackensack.

Those running the program, which was partly funded through a New Jersey Department of Health grant, say it’s training individuals for the future of work in agriculture and churning out some of the greenest thumbs in the Garden State. The businesses they’re partnering with agree.

“What REED Next really addresses is right in the name: What’s next after an individual with autism turns 21,” Lisa Goldstein, VP, said. “These individuals often go home and have nothing to do at that point. Once they become adults, the state basically says, ‘We’ve covered you and you’re not our responsibility anymore.'” Goldstein explained that there’s a serious lack of employment opportunities for individuals with autism in New Jersey and across the country; nearly half of all individuals age 25 with autism have never held a paying job.

In an effort to find those employment opportunities for REED Academy’s students once they’re done with school, the organization, through its affiliates, started looking into training graduates for increasingly in-demand traditional farming roles.

“And then we came into contact with Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University who is really the grandfather of vertical farming,” Goldstein said. “In talking to him about this farming idea, he said: ‘Wait. Stop right there, you need to do this as a vertical farm. It’s indoor, has a small footprint, and leads to less waste.’ With the type of organization we are, we were willing to try something new if it made sense.”

Greens Do Good takes the extra step of doing it with a hydroponic, environmentally friendly, energy-efficient method of growing produce. The program’s 3,300-square-foot facility grows basil, kale, lettuce, and microgreens. It’s also the first state pilot in the country using indoor hydroponic vertical farming specifically to support autism programs.

“We really want to provide a new generation of green-collar jobs,” Goldstein said.

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