Workers grow food and develop skills at Arnold Center’s plant factory

Agencies serving people with disabilities often have piecework projects with workers packaging materials in large quantities. Locally, the Arnold Center is in their second year of a new effort to grow plants in a process that combines recycled water and gravity.

Arnold Center President Craig Varterian, who began this hydroponic business, called Arnold Farms after growing plants in his basement, likens the facility to a ‘plant factory’.

Craig Varterian, Arnold Center President.

For several years before starting Arnold Farms, Varterian read plant journals, consulted experts and grew plants in his basement, often using simple equipment and bins to hold the soil and greens. By the time Arnold Farms launched in 2018, he had done enough background research to design the hydroponic system with help from a couple of other staff members.

“We brought in parts from all over the world – China, Korea,” Varterian says, noting the necessary LED bulbs give off very intense amounts light in optimal spectrums. “With some of the parts, you can’t buy in the U.S.”

Walk down the hall toward the large indoor growing area and one quickly breathes air with notes of basil, including a sweet variety that has a little whiff of licorice. There is Genovese, an Italian basil that’s excellent for pesto, and a spicy variety from Thailand that has red stems. Arnold Farms also grows varieties of lettuce and kale, plus edible flowers such as Mexican mint.

Multiple varieties and sizes of plants means the prospect for growth and a diversity of crops that Arnold Farms can produce.

The indoor farm has approximately 6,000 square feet of space and capacity for 26,000 plants. Varterian believes the farm is one of the most advanced, high-tech facilities in Michigan. Unlike many other plant farms with much higher startup costs, Arnold Farms was built for about $500,000, primarily from grants but also from private gifts in order to provide training in a specified field for workers.

Arnold Farms also produces microgreen which grow just 10 to 12 days before being harvested. These plant varieties carry many more nutrients than full-grown plants, says Chandra Jewel, the intake coordinator at Arnold Center. Some of the more unusual products include amaranth, green and purple shiso – an Asian member of the mint family -- and a spicy green mix for salads. More common herbs grown include wasabi, cilantro and mint.

The indoor farm has approximately 6,000 square feet of space and capacity for 26,000 plants.

Jewel has found at least one use for the corn shoots the farms grows. She mixes the wispy, grass-like plants with taco seasoning, salsa and sour cream. “They are great to add to Mexican dishes, because they provide the corn taste,” she says.

Jewel remembers when the fledgling hydroponics business began in a room about 14 feet square, a brick-walled space that was a classroom. There were just a few trays for plants and a couple of employees. “Now we can do so much more.”

Varterian explains this experimentation with multiple varieties and sizes of plants has meant the prospect for growth and a diversity of crops that Arnold Farms can produce.

Arnold Farms also produces microgreen whicg grow just 10 to 12 days before being harvested

“We have a great opportunity to explore agricultural sustainability and we’ve got a great opportunity to create jobs for people with disabilities,” Varterian says.

Varterian didn’t get his start in the disability field. First, he owned a factory. Then, he was president of Reclaim Detroit, a blight remediation program that started with 77,000 abandoned houses. The program trained people to make furniture from the recycled wood of houses that had been torn down.

Workers wear protective suits at Arnold Farms.

“I’d been thinking of doing some version of hydroponic farms,” he says, contrasting his new profession with the old. “Life as we did it (working with demolished houses and used wood) was unsustainable without the complete support of city government and Mayor’s office.”

Varterian spent years working to employ people, but knew nothing about running a disability-related organization. Still, he says, he’s always been up to a challenge. Recycling practices, which had been a practice for decades, would provide the renewable resource of plants and possibilities for expansion.

“How many times in your life do you get the chance to take over an organization where you could do something meaningful and make something exciting happen?” he says.

Microgreens are harvested after 10-12 days.

Facilities that traditionally provided supported employment or ‘sheltered workshops’ as they are sometimes described are moving away from piecework for large companies and toward providing people with jobs that pay at least minimum wage and give them training that also prepares them to eventually work outside the facility.

As employment needs change, sometimes the amount and type of work changes for people whose work is confined to a rehabilitation facility, leading to a drop in the amount of work contracted. Varterian said 60 to 70 percent of Arnold Center workers are working at jobs outside the center, and that also means their employers are required to pay them minimum wage.

Racks of produce inside Arnold Farms.

Another 12 to 14 full- and part-time employees work at the indoor farm. They monitor the pumps, which dispense nutrients as they are needed. They transfer plants from germination to seedling stage and later to the area where plants grow to their desired size and are harvested.

Plants are then packed into bags or clam shell containers for delivery to stores and restaurants that will use them. Local restaurant customers include Midland Country Club, Gratzi, Pizza Baker and Whine. Stores include Jack’s Fruit and Meat Market and LaLonde’s Market as well as several Bay City businesses.

“Arnold Farms staffers have sold their products at the Midland Area Farmers Market but now have ceased for the season”, Varterian says.

12 to 14 full- and part-time employees work at the indoor farm.

Although he’s aware that individuals might want to buy produce throughout the year, this is a farm and it’s not set up for individual orders.

“We’re focused mainly on training rather than commercialization,” he says.

At some point, the farm might have its own market day apart from the Midland Area Farmers Market, when staff could sell the products.

Joe Allen, who used to work on the Arnold Center’s floor, says he loves his job at the farms. Not only does he harvest and plant, but he helps with accounting tasks.

“They gave me employment and a safe, secure environment,” he says. “I like working with something that grows, something that’s planted, something to watch. And we’re always learning.”

Arnold farms supplies many area restaurants and stores as well as the farmers market.

Robert Goulette has worked at the farm for 10 months. Although he can use just one hand due to his cerebral palsy, Goulette says his disability doesn’t hold him back and he does everything he can. Varterian calls him “one of our rock stars” because he works hard and fast.

Workers need to keep close eyes on the plants, transferring them as they grow and making sure trays and other equipment are washed. Plants are stacked in trays up to five or six levels high. Gravity takes water down through the stacks; then it’s pumped back up to begin the process again.

“I’d like to see people with disabilities as leaders around the country in this type of farming."

Arnold Farms uses no pesticides, and Varterian likes to call the facilities plants ‘purer than organic’. Plants are germinated in a something called a clean room, which requires workers to use gowns so germs don’t come into the facility on their clothes.

What’s Varterian’s dream for the future of Arnold Farms? He’d like to employ this kind of farming around the country, especially in ‘food deserts’ where food isn’t easily accessible.

“I’d like to see people with disabilities as leaders around the country in this type of farming,” he adds. 

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