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    a row of zucchini plants in front of a white barn

    Learning to Care

    On a community farm, people with and without disabilities learn to grow food and nurture one another. I’ve received much more than I’ve offered.

    By Amy Curran

    April 15, 2023


    It’s morning at our small community farm in Durham, North Carolina. The farm team, a crew comprised mostly of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, gathers around a picnic table strategically placed in the shade of a large pin oak.

    We will talk about our work. There will be chard, potatoes, or lettuce to plant. There will be beds to prepare for cucumbers and summer squash. There will be seeds to tuck into trays, our first bid for a share of summer’s abundance. But first we remind ourselves of our rules: Care for your body. Care for the land. Care for one another.

    These are our only rules, though they’re fairly all-encompassing. We are becoming farmers, and we are learning to offer and receive care. Every morning we practice paying attention, because you cannot care for something you do not notice.

    Each person chooses a task and saunters confidently down the hill. Over our work, we chat and laugh with one another. Sometimes deep conversations emerge. Other times strong emotions erupt. There are moments when we fall into a quiet camaraderie.

    I kneel beside Ali, who came today decked in her “farmer overalls” and wide floppy hat. She certainly looks the part. She is tucking small lettuce starts tenderly into the ground. Ali works with joy and precision. Planting is her specialty. She looks at me and smiles.

    “When this grows up we can make a really good salad!” she says. Ali loves imagining what our food can become. “I think we could put in some radishes and carrots as well.”

    a row of zucchini plants in front of a white barn

    Giant zucchini plants flourish with love and care. All photographs courtesy of Amy Curran.

    When it’s time for our break, I stand up and call to the team. “Time to go up the hill!” I hear a groan from Sergei. He’s been working hard on getting compost laid on the beds we are prepping for early cucumbers. I’ve interrupted him mid-sentence as he informs new volunteers that adding compost builds health in our soil.

    “Can I stay down here and keep working?” he asks me with a glint in his eye. We have had this conversation before.

    “No way, man,” I say, following our old script. “We are here to work, but we are also here to rest and to know one another better. Take care of the farm, take care of our bodies, take care of each other, remember? We’ll have more time to take care of the farm soon.”

    Satisfied that he has made his desires known, Sergei resigns himself to a break and follows his team back to the picnic table. Soon, he’s regaling the volunteers with stories of his childhood in Russia, half-eaten cookie in hand.


    “What are you doing over there, Javi?” I ask. He is nearly hidden in our towering sunflower patch.

    “Seed saving,” he says, concentrating. He has found a drooping sunflower blossom and carefully removed it from the stem. With a sense of stillness that belies his active nature, he is removing each seed from its individual pocket. There are dozens of seeds, ready to be planted next year.

    Javi has made himself the dissection expert at the farm, and he is truly the expert. He has become the person to ask about how anything works, because chances are he has already taken it apart to observe its design.

    This is the magic of this place. We are a “social care farm.” Alongside quality produce, we work to grow competency and community for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Because of this additional component to our mission, we qualify for grants and are given generous gifts. This allows us to step outside of the demands of the market and its typical focus on production and consumption. We farm at a pace that is tailored to the needs of the team, rather than pushing the team to meet the demands of the market.

    a young man holding peppers

    Javi proudly displays his pepper harvest.

    In a world obsessed with the bottom line, people are valued according to their abilities to produce. Those who aren’t productive are dismissed as incapable. For adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the experience of being offered meaningful labor is rare. Set against a standard of speed or strength that they will never meet, people with disabled bodies or minds are often set aside in the workforce. And when they do find work, their tasks can often feel more like busywork than a meaningful contribution.

    At the farm, we try to do things differently, offering work that benefits the immediate community, and offering the support and skill-building necessary for people to do the work they are asked to do. The farm team has learned how to seed and plant and weed and mulch with the best of them. They know their work matters, just as they know they are capable of it.

    “That’s why I like it out here so much,” Javi said to me recently. We had been discussing the different types of work people do at the farm. “I don’t get treated like a person with a disability who can’t do anything. I just get treated like a person. And I know you need my help.”


    “Now that’s some fertile dirt,” my friend Tony says with pride. He should know – he has helped transform the compacted, weedy red patch of land into the rows of fluffy loam that it is today. It used to be that we had to whack at the soil with hoes to get it to release its tenacious weeds. Now we can sink our hands into the beds until we can’t see our wrists.

    a man watering plants

    Tony waters baby zucchini plants.

    “It just seems to matter.” Another Tony-ism. He says this about our fertile dirt, and about many other things. Tony is uniquely attuned to the things that matter. On his list: weeding with precision, a delicious meal, conversations with his precious chickens, and bringing fresh basil to his friend Bonnie for her famous sweet tea. He’s right on all fronts: these things do matter. In the case of fertile dirt, our small plot of land began by barely producing anything worth eating. After six years of soil regeneration we have seen the productivity of our land increase dramatically. We care for our land, and it cares right back.

    Modern industrial agriculture, like modern labor, follows the demand of the market. Rather than asking what the earth can reasonably offer, we do what it takes (synthetically or otherwise) to meet a demand. In the short term, this can lead to remarkable outputs. Long term, however, this lack of consideration for the earth leads to eroded fields, soil depleted of nutrients, and agricultural land that requires more and more chemical additives to maintain the output. For farmers struggling to keep their land, this style of farming often seems the only option available.

    Set against a standard of speed or strength that they will never meet, people with disabled bodies or minds are often set aside in the workforce.

    A little bit of extra care goes a long way, as Tony can attest. We have spent years building the health of our soil, and this year it has paid off exponentially. Our goal for the year was to produce two thousand pounds of vegetables and fruit from our little half-acre plot. It would have been the most we had ever grown. By October we were celebrating a harvest of three thousand pounds and counting. We sat around an evening bonfire, roasting marshmallows and taking big bites of pie made from pumpkins that we’d grown together. We celebrated the work we have been doing for the six years our farm has been running – all that work to heal the soil has brought us to this moment. We have put our own vitality into this farm, and the offering of our bodies has come back to us as a gift in return.


    I walk down the hill to the community garden that has been my place of work for five years. Though it is just after midday, the light already comes soft and sideways through newly bare branches. Rows of greens greet me, sweet from several morning frosts. I take a deep breath of cool air. It is the cusp of winter.

    For farmers, winter is a hibernation of sorts. The shorter days and limited winter crops are an invitation to rest and reflection. We look back at the previous growing season and make our plans for the following year. We plant seeds expectantly, hoping for a favorable spring.

    For me, the coming of winter this year represents more than the close of a growing season. I will be moving on to different work, not returning to this garden space and its people in the spring. I stand at the edge of the garden at the cusp of winter, aware of these shifting seasons and grateful for everything that has taken root in this soil. I have been deeply privileged to facilitate this community space. What has happened here in these years is a magic not of my making.

    In the final minutes of my final day of work, I take a deep breath and call to my crew. They have done a hard day’s work in the chilly winter air, and it is time to go home. Brett waits for me at the bottom of the hill. Knowing that he often asks for a steadying hand, I offer mine to him in silence. He takes it, then looks at me.

    “This is your last day,” he says quietly.

    “It is,” I answer.

    “It has been a joy to work with you,” he says. “And now I get to hold your hand up this hill one last time.”

    Contributed By AmyCurran Amy Curran

    Amy Curran is a farmer and writer living in Durham, North Carolina.

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