By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Ryan Smith has become a familiar face at the Palm Valley Market every Tuesday, representing Berry Good Farms and sharing his love of farming with the community.
“I love to grow fruits and veggies. I also love to sell it,” said Smith, crediting his father with teaching him sales techniques.
Smith is a marketing assistant and a North Florida School of Special Education (NFSSE) graduate. Berry Good Farms is run from the NFSSE’s campus, using hydroponics, aquaponics and raised beds. Every week, Smith, along with Berry Good Farms manager Jordan Williams, brings lettuce, pea sprouts, herbs, radishes, flowers and other organic fruits and vegetables to sell at the market.
The goal of Berry Good Farms, under the umbrella of NFSSE, is to educate and employ individuals with intellectual differences, while providing the community with a valuable service.
Smith, aka “The Market Guy,” visits Home Depot twice a month in search of seasonal plants for the farm and has become well-known for returning to the farm one day with a Carolina Reaper pepper plant, according to Williams. That led to the farm making hot sauce, he said.
Williams said that Berry Good Farms provides sustainable food in an ecological manner through the training of NFSSE transition students and through the compensated employment of post-graduates such as Smith. The mission is to assist students in becoming independent and productive community members.
Leslie Taylor, Palm Valley Market co-organizer, said she is thrilled to have Berry Good Farms at the market because it gives the market a wider array of organically grown fruits, flowers, vegetables and herbs.
“It’s wonderful to work with a business that provides job training and paid employment for young adults with intellectual and developmental differences. Jordan and Ryan always offer the best customer service and are so knowledgeable about their products — we learn something from them every time they are with us. They add so much to our community, and we are grateful that they are a part of this market,” said Taylor.
Students enrolled in horticulture at the school work in the 30 by 60 greenhouses and learn to cultivate wheatgrass, microgreens and veggie starter trays for wholesale and retail customers, Williams said. Students plant seasonal vegetables and herbs, maintain the garden, and harvest in both the Culinary Arts program and “Berry Good Farms On the Go,” a food truck that makes stops all around the community.
Williams said that there are 25 hydroponic towers, an aquaponics area and 30 raised beds at the school’s one-acre farm.
“Our farm is a display garden of sorts. We use a lot of different growing mediums,” said Williams. “It is an opportunity to show we can grow fruits and vegetables organically and how we can source locally.”
It is also an opportunity to promote a green lifestyle: reduce, reuse and recycle. Community outreach is important to the program, according to Williams.
“We are kind of a hidden gem in Arlington,” said Williams. “When folks see our space and see how hard our students work, they are usually blown away.”
The school marked its 30-year anniversary this year and has 200 students in its elementary to post-graduate programs. North Florida School of Special Education began with four students; the farm began with 50 blueberry bushes and now has 150.
Farm assistant Jenna Thompson said students help with composting, filling up beds, pulling weeds, seeding, harvesting, arranging cut flowers, and helping with tea dehydration and packaging. Thompson said that her job at the farm combines two worlds that she cares about deeply — farming and special education.
“It is so great, a feeling that is almost indescribable. It is very humbling to work with people with so many different abilities and commonalities,” said Thompson. “They have taught me to take life moment-by-moment and to start looking at people individually and for themselves.”
[Author’s note: To take a tour of the farm, contact Williams at JWilliams@northfloridaschool.org. To purchase from Berry Good Farms, Williams and Smith are at the Palm Valley Market every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 148 Canal Boulevard.]
Photo courtesy Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Berry Good Farms’ Jordan Williams and Ryan Smith.