Sometimes when you can’t stand going to work at your same old miserable job every morning, it’s the universe’s way of making you so uncomfortable that you’ve got to make a change…and start doing what it is you are meant to do.
That’s not a quote from Oprah – it’s how Wendie Blanchard describes what finally moved her to retire from her lucrative job and start raising local hydroponic produce with her nephew Arthur and others from the disabled community in Newton, New Jersey. In fact, Arthur’s simple question was what finally motivated her to make the leap. “Why don’t you just do what you want, Aunt Wendie? You have a choice. I don’t.”
Arthur has Down’s Syndrome, and unlike Wendie, his employment options were almost negligible. So Wendie decided that she would start doing what she wanted –and create a space for Arthur and other disabled people to likewise experience the joy of watching things grow, being part of a good, hard-working business, and making an income.
Because she’s not just a gardener but also a savvy thinker, Wendie didn’t start her venture on a wing and a prayer. Engaging grad students from Cornell University and Ohio State, she did marketing and feasibility studies, and developed a sophisticated system of hydroponics that would be simple and environmentally sound (using 90% less water, 80% fewer nutrients, and 100% fewer pesticides than field grown methods), yet sustainable year-round in an inexpensive greenhouse.
Arthur & Friends planted its first seeds on July 24, 2008 in a greenhouse in Wantage, NJ– and my, have they grown since then! Riding the wave of demand for local organic produce, the operation now employs 31 disabled people, is one of the flagship programs of NORWESCAP, has garnered a $500,000 grant from Kessler Foundation to support its work, and is currently planning to open numerous other greenhouses across New Jersey – in Orange, Newark, Somerset, Hackettstown, Bridgetown and Perona Farms. Arthur & Friends is a verifiable hit — with local consumers, restaurants, wedding planners, and its own employees.
But Wendie has a Jack & the Beanstalk dream for her company. Ultimately, she wants to motivate public schools across America to build hydroponic greenhouses, and give disabled students experience in the retail, wholesale, and online business of growing and marketing food. Schools could sell the produce for income, and use it in the school lunch program. “Our model of hydroponic agriculture conserves resources, counteracts obesity, enhances nutrition, and can generate income for the school – while it gives disabled people a sense of dignity, respect and participation in society through work. It’s a win/win/win/win model of social entrepreneurship!”
Wendie is a cheerleader for gardening and the disabled– and like the rain and sun, she is an irresistible force of nature. My $100 today goes to Wendie, Arthur and all their friends. Keep on growing!
Arthur & Friends is located on the New Jersey State Fairgrounds in Augusta, NJ. Hours are M-F, 10 – 2:30, but if you email Wendie firstname.lastname@example.org, she’ll tell you what’s fresh, take your order, and you may even convince her to open on weekends for you, if possible.