At 31, Rachel Kohn Obut has farmed and gardened with passion ever since she graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio just over ten years ago. More recently and especially since 2011, she has learned heaps about the therapeutic properties of growing and harvesting vegetables, pulling weeds and planting seeds. As the Farm Manager at Sweetwater Spectrum, a residential community for adults with autism, she has witnessed first hand the healing power that comes from laboring outdoors, close to the ground and with one’s fellows.
“I think I fell in love with farming and became a farmer because of the connection to nature,” Obut says at the end of a long day. “Being outside, working hard, watching plants grow all feel very therapeutic to me.”
Those same activities are also therapeutic for the sixteen or so residents who have autism and who live at Sweetwater Spectrum on Fifth Street West in Sonoma, just a short distance from the plaza.
The fastest growing developmental disorder in the U.S, autism is still not widely understood, though that’s changing quickly. Care for young adults with autism has been limited, but innovations are afoot.
Six years ago a group of Sonoma parents with autistic children got together to create a place that would provide a feeling of belonging and that would facilitate a sense of independence and show residents that they might enjoy life with dignity. From the start, the farm was a key part of the whole enterprise at Sweetwater Spectrum. Ever since then the farm has aimed to be good and clean and fair. There’s no harm to the environment, the quality of the food that’s produced is high and the entire approach to farming and eating values human beings.
Obut came on board to help plan and design the farm that now occupies 1.2 acres with a state-of-the-art greenhouse, fruit trees, row crops and a house for chickens. Residents work side-by-side with Obut and with one another. They sell produce at the Sweetwater Spectrum farm stand and at the plant sale. They also cook and eat the vegetables they grow and harvest.
April and May are the big months for planting. Obut and the residents have already put tomato plants into the ground. Peppers and eggplants are next. Fava beans are ready to be harvested right now and the strawberries will be ripe enough to be picked and eaten any day now.
Tamsin, 26, likes to clean the chicken coop. Born in New York she grew up in Napa and arrived at Sweetwater in October 2013.
“I like it here because it allows for independence and at the same time because it provides a sense of structure,” she says. “Without structure I get frustrated, confused and anxious.”
For Tamsin and for others at Sweetwater, it’s essential that the farm have clear pathways, raised beds, well-marked signage and photos in the field that illustrate the tasks to be done, especially for residents who have poor verbal skills.
Tamsin added, “Ever since I arrived here at Sweetwater I have been eating better, more slowly and healthier, too, with much less junk food in my diet.”
She also helps to educate members of the community about autism, which she describes as a “neurological disorder that affects you socially and can lead to difficulties relating to others and to isolation.”
Tamsin explained that, “working with the chickens and on the farm has helped me improve my social skills.”
Julia, 27, likes to cook with the vegetables from the farm. Born in San Francisco and raised in Petaluma, she enjoys making and eating potato and leek soup, egg plant parmigiana and broccoli and cheddar soup.
Maris, 25, says she doesn’t like the chickens or chicken poop and that she’s afraid of getting skin cancer from exposure to the sun, but she does find something to treasure.
“I like purple vegetables,” she explained.
Sweetwater Spectrum’s executive director and CEO, Deirdre Sherrin, comes from Kansas City and now lives in the town of Sonoma.
“The farm is part of our desire to build community,” she said. “Farming is important for the residents because it’s calming, it brings them outdoors and in the open, teaches them where food comes from, and allows them to make healthy connections with one another and with the land and the garden.”
Horticultural therapy, or HT as it’s called, is a growing field, though it also has a history that goes back in the United States to the early nineteenth century. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), the preeminent American doctor in his own day, discovered that laboring on a farm helped patients with mental illness. These days the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) promotes the therapeutic aspects of working in gardens and on farms. The AHTA website claims that HT “helps improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, and socialization.” http://ahta.org/horticultural-therapy.
Furthermore, the website says that HT is “No longer limited to treating mental illness.” In fact, HT works for doctors and for physically and mentally fit farmers and gardeners.
Working at Sweetwater has been a kind of healing for Obut herself. “I work really hard,” she said. “No one but me pushes me. I’ve learned to slow down and to work at the pace of the residents, and I’ve seen how therapeutic gardening can be.”
Indeed, one doesn’t have to have autism to learn from those who have it. Slowing down, making healthy connections to people and to the Earth, and knowing where our food comes from seem like good things for all of us to do.
Gardens with pathways, signage and images to remind us of the tasks at hand in a garden or on a farm might be useful for one and all, and whether we’re verbally challenged or verbal whizzes.
Jonah Raskin, a long time member of Slow Food Russian River, lives in Santa Rosa. He has just planted tomatoes, basil, cilantro and summer squash.