By Brian Morris
to an audio version of this
At 9:30 on a gray summer morning, 51-year old John Powers has already been at work
for an hour and a half. A dense cloud cover keeps the summer heat at bay, but it's humid,
and John is already perspiring. He's tall, with an athletic build, and holds a clump of
greens in his latex-gloved right hand. Powers, who's hearing-impaired, is heading to the
greenhouse where he works four to five days a week. There, he carefully nurtures some
of the Cape's most sought-after tomato plants.
"I'm tryin' to keep on top of the tomatoes. I started at 8:00. you
gotta be ahead of the sun. by 11:30, the temperature inside can go up to 100, so you
gotta get in there quick and get out as quick as you can. But the tomatoes love it - they
keep on growing."
Powers is one of twelve disabled Cape residents who work at a hydroponic vegetable
farm in Dennis. It's run by capeAbilities
, a Hyannis-based non-profit founded in 1968 as
Nauset, Inc., and re-named capeAbilities in 2005. Larry Thayer is Executive
: "We really try to focus on the assets of the people with disabilities
we're working with - the focus on what people can do as opposed to what they cannot
Disabled clients are referred to capeAbilities by parents, doctors, and state and local
social service agencies. Or they can simply seek out help on their own. Once in the
program, clients have access to housing, transportation, vocational training, as well as
speech, physical and occupational therapy. capeAbilities also provides jobs through
several entrepreneurial businesses, such as the Dennis hydroponic farm. The five-acre
property is dominated by a cluster of three greenhouses.
: "...and this is our lettuce house. We probably have about 10 different
varieties. We have lettuce in here right now, and then just a few herbs; there's some
basil, there's some tyme, there's some arugula."
Tom Zurn is the farm's Business Manager. He says pickers are paid $7-$9 an hour. They
usually work from 5 AM til 9 AM, before it gets too hot inside. Zurn explains that a
"hydroponic" growing environment is one in which everything is organic, and all
elements are carefully controlled.
: "The plants are only getting what you want 'em to have, as opposed to
soils, where they may or may not get enough nutrients, they may not get enough water,
they may not get enough potassium, they may not get enough sulfates. These plants only
get what we give them. They never go long periods of time without food or short periods
of time - so it's always a very systematic system of how they're getting fed."
Zurn says capeAbilities tries to find the right fit between their disabled clients and the
working environment at the farm.
: "We have a chance to bring people out here, to come try working to
see if this is what they like and this is what their passion is. And for some, they'll say,
'Nope, this wasn't it.' And they won't chose to work here, or at a place like this. But for
other people, you can really see this is what they wanna do."
One of the farm's biggest draws is the Salad Club, a group of about 120 people from
capeAbilities' mailing list. Each week, members sign up in advance to pick up their fresh
salad orders, that disabled workers like Kathy Bell carefully assemble and package.
: "Take one from the right section. Now remember to take a couple
from this section too, so you're gonna mix half of 'em with the real ripe, and half of 'em
that are gonna be ripe in two days."
In a small packing shed next to one of the greenhouses, Tom Zurn guides Kathy through
the process of packaging fresh tomatoes.
Pat Siewert of Chatham is a Salad Club member. She raves about the produce, and says
it's uplifting to watch the employees gain confidence and self-esteem.
: "I think it's marvelous. What could be more rewarding than working
with your hands and producing something that's edible? You know, having a product that
people like and enjoy. It must be a great deal of satisfaction for the people who work
Back outside, Larry Thayer looks around, and says he's thrilled the farm has been such a
: "I listen to the comments about the people who are coming out
here to do the work, and how excited they are - the felling of self-worth, the fact that they
have a paycheck, is all good. And of course, the flip side is that you know that you're
doing something which the community sees as valued. And that's been evident by the
wonderful response that we've had from the public in each of the towns on Cape
The capeAbilities hydroponic farm is becoming known both for the fine products grown
in its greenhouses, and the opportunity it affords its employees - people who, despite
their disabilities, work together to make the farm productive and profitable.
Broadcast August 10, 2006
Brian Morris reports for WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR Station.