By Brian Morris

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

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.

John Powers: "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 Director.

Larry Thayer: "We really try to focus on the assets of the people with disabilities that we're working with - the focus on what people can do as opposed to what they cannot do."

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.

Tom Zurn: "...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.

Tom Zurn: "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.

Tom Zurn: "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.

Tom Zurn: "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.

Pat Siewert: "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 here."

Back outside, Larry Thayer looks around, and says he's thrilled the farm has been such a positive venture.

Larry Thayer: "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 Cod.

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.