What Urban Farming Can Learn From The Developmentally Disabled

By Brian Donnelly | Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming

Until recently I have not been one who has spent time with people with learning disabilities, Down syndrome persons, autistic persons or people who are challenged in some way. In the United States and in many places around the world these people are not very well integrated into the workplace. Unless one goes and intentionally seeks these people out it is not normal to hang out with them and get to know them and understand just how special they are.

Through my British business partner I have learned how these special people are a well integrated force in his country, how they have so much to offer, and how big of a role they can play in driving any enterprise forward.

Over the past year I have been fortunate to come to know people who are challenged. It has enriched my life and given me a perspective on something I did not understand before. You see – I was ignorant. I did not know any better. I just thought – they are different and I wish I could do something to make a difference in their lives.

Today I have that chance….

In my research I came across this – I did not write it – I wish I did – It captures a very important point I wish to share today.

“To most people, the dandelion is seen as nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flower beds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature, known for its healing and medicinal properties. The value of the dandelion is very much dependent on the knowledge of the individual. Most of us don’t want it in our gardens – it doesn’t fit in. But if you place the dandelion seeds in your kitchen garden and cultivate it, it can also turn out to be one of your most valuable plants, used in beer and wine making, salads and as a natural medicine. Quite simply, cultivate it and you will reap the rewards

Weed or herb? You decide. The value of what you see depends on who you are.”

I see a clear parallel between the perception of the dandelion in nature and society’s perception of people with autism – or “specialist people” – in the workforce.

Even in today’s economic climate with high unemployment, companies are often short on staff with special skills. What most hiring managers don’t realize is that there is an untapped pool of resources out there, willing and able to provide valuable services to the corporate sector.

Did you know, for example, that people with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome often illustrate similar character traits? They are systematic, have a passion for, and strong attention to detail, and an outstanding memory: the very traits that a lot of companies are looking for in employees for such tasks as planting, picking, and packaging.

However, people with autism and similar traits, are often excluded from the workforce. Oftentimes, they don’t fit in, they are not very sociable, they don’t perform well at job interviews, and sometimes have special requirements for their work-space that may seem strange or unreasonable to potential employers. Others may have managed to secure a job, but are not performing to the best of their abilities, are loners or not popular with their co-workers

But how would these employees be if you were able to adopt a management model that makes you a better leader and makes them better performers? And what would it mean to your company to have access to an untapped pool of specialist resources?

Not only will you become more competitive, you can also encourage more innovation. In a global knowledge-based economy, innovation is the key. And innovation does not come from the mainstream – innovation thrives on the edge, in that place where things are not “business as usual”, in that mind that thinks a little differently, and in that personality that doesn’t always fit in”

That thought is one that deserves a response and here is mine….

I operate a social enterprise known as Sun State Organics. We manufacture systems that convert organic waste into energy, fertilizer and food. We are based in Ocala – we work with countries, cities, counties, communities and consumers. Our work is global. We are not your normal company – we are innovators – paradigm changers – changemakers. We are not happy with the status quo and we intend to do something about it.

Over the past year I have gained a remarkable friend. A friend I thought I would never have – someone who is loyal, honest, caring, compassionate, creative and hard working. My new friend is what brings me here today to share my story with you. It is she who has prepared me for this moment in order to fight for her – to fight for her future and all those like her. She is the dandelion in my garden that I want to bloom so bright and tall and strong. Her name in Kelsey.


I remember when Kelsey first came to my greenhouse. It was all so strange for her – the system I have created is like no other – it is strange to everyone even me. There was resistance to getting in the dirt. There was nervousness about helping and doing something wrong. I stood next to her as she tried and every time her fingers touched the dirt she would wipe them on my shirt. I was very dirty after a while and she was laughing and enjoying it thoroughly.

Kelsey puts the seeds in, watches the plants grow with amazement, picks the food, washes it, and turns it into the most amazing Lasagna you have ever tasted. We call it Kelsagna – and Kelsketti. KELCO is a name you will hear about in the future. It will be a company that will make the most wonderful things out of things no one wants – organic waste.

Our system enables people of all skill sets to do something miraculous – grow food. With our system it is possible for special needs people to thrive and succeed. It enables them to have a skill set that is needed now more than ever and it is an endeavor that can provide for their needs and others in a profound way.

Urban farming offers special needs people the vehicle through which they can learn a skill set in a new industry that is designed to provide a very good living if done right. To do it right does not require unique skills, heavy equipment, fossil fuels or high dexterity. It is not something you have to go to school for to learn, it is not something that requires advanced mathematics or computer programming. What is at the heart of Urban Farming is growing food – an interaction between nature and people – a gift, a mystery and an adventure.

I could not grow anything two years ago and today I can grow anything – I can do it because I have a system that takes me out of the equation. It is so simple anyone can do it. It is highly automated and allows more to be grown in less space using less resources.

As the urban farming movement grows and larger, and bigger facilities are built there is a fear that the link between man and plants will be lost in the process. I believe that by scaling up the number of people as we scale up the size of the facilities nothing will be lost.

But who will these people be? Who would I want?

I would want people who are connected to nature. I would want people who are gentle, not in a rush and tranquil. I would want people who notice the smallest things and do something about it naturally without me having to tell them. I would want someone who is focused, passionate about what they do and dancing as they came through the door in the morning to start their day. I would want someone who is obsessed with detail; someone is not distracted by politics or religion or into standing around drinking coffee and talking about anything and everything just so they don’t have to work.

If I was looking for a partner I would want someone who would not lie, cheat or steal and would work hard and be there for me every day to fight the good fight and dream the good dream.

I would want Kelsey and those like her.

Can you put a seed in dirt?

Can you take the food that grows from that seed off the plant?

Can you make a meal with the food you picked?

Can you eat the food and provide food for yourself no matter what?

Will people buy food if you grow it?

Is it possible to decrease fund raising needs to support special needs groups through urban farming?

Can special needs people be great urban farmers in the new age of agriculture?

They can do these things – they can thrive in this industry – they can provide what is needed to ensure the bond between humans and plants is not broken or lost. Their special skills are needed, wanted and appreciated. They can make a big difference.

I wish to enlist your help – to call upon you to come together and develop a farm to fork model that provides the therapy, job skills and opportunity to special needs people everywhere and gives them their place as specialists to perform with pride and success.

We are working with Buchholz school to provide such a model. A model where special needs kids are taught how to grow food and sell it. They will plant the plants, tend to their needs, pick it, pack it and sell it. They will learn how to feed themselves and others. They will be surrounded by miracles every moment – they will be happy being part of Mother Nature’s plan. And like that dandelion no one ever wanted – there number will blow across the world and wherever they land something beautiful and magical will bloom.

About The Author

Brian Donnelly
I assist others in finding creative ways to recycle their waste AND make money. Passionate about waste recycling and sustainable agriculture. Through composting, vermiculture and vertical growing it is possible to produce 14 times more using 90% less with high nutrition and flavor.