Serving people with Autism
“To positively impact the lives of individuals with autism and those whose lives they touch”, this is the mission held by Bittersweet Inc. through the many services they offer at their beautiful Whitehouse, OH location. One such service that is benefitting the Bittersweet community as well as the wider Lucas County community is Bittersweet Farm. The farm grows an abundance of fresh produce to support their thriving Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Founded in 1983, Bittersweet Farms is the first farmstead model in the United States specifically focused on serving individuals on the autism spectrum. As such, other states and countries look to Bittersweet Farms for inspiration and best practices.
Bittersweet Farms sits on 80 acres of land which houses gardens, hoop houses, greenhouses, and orchards spread across their complex which provides many active programing for individuals with autism. Bittersweet Farms received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture back in 2013 allowing for the creation of Bittersweet Gardens. Bittersweet Gardens is an expansion of the Horticulture (or CSA) Program, the Culinary Program, and the Creative Arts Program. Before the 2013 grant however, their CSA program started by selling left over vegetables to staff members so nothing went to waste. From there they expanded to selling shares of their farm to community members when the Community Supported Agriculture movement was up and coming. Now for the past 10 years they have been providing the surrounding community with their growing CSA program. With this CSA program community members are not just supporting a local farm, but supporting the greater mission of serving adults with autism. These individuals partake in both personal and professional development through job training, physical activity, connecting to nature, and interacting with supportive staff and peers.
A unique aspect to Bittersweet Farm’s CSA program is that they offer three separate seasons (spring, summer, fall), each of which run for nine weeks. With the farm’s advanced hoop house technology, they are able to offer a variety of produce from mid-April until mid-November. Each season provides members with a wide array of fresh, wholesome produce. On top of the seasonal shares, members can choose among two options, the standard share and the petite share, when deciding which CSA is best for them. These shares are accompanied with a weekly newsletter that provides members with news from the farm, produce included in that week’s share, and recipes. The weekly shares can be picked up at the farm in Whitehouse or at Walt Churchill Market every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the seasons. Their CSA program is wildly successful, so much that there has been a waitlist for membership at times.
Bittersweet Farm grows and harvests a wide range of vegetables and herbs on site; however, in a desire to offer diversity in the shares, some crops, such as melons, sweet corn, and seasonal fruit, are harvested at other local, small-scale farms. These partnerships not only support diversity among shares but support other local farms throughout the area. Local partnerships include Stevens Garden, Keil’s Produce and Greenhouse, Hoen’s Orchard, and Sadowski Produce. Aside from the CSA program connected to the farm, the culinary and creative art programs also have local partnerships and support. The Culinary Program sells homemade cookies and pesto that have been made on site to local retailers including Walt Churchill’s Market, Thursh’s Bakery, Georgette’s, Market on the Green, and Season’s Eating. The Creative Arts Program offers individuals the ability to express their thoughts, needs, and emotions through artistic techniques and media. They sell their artwork at their Gift Shop in Whitehouse or online at their Etsy Store. Keep an eye out for their products around the community for so many opportunities to support Bittersweet Gardens!
Aside from the many great partnerships, Bittersweet Farms is very passionate about community outreach and hold events to educate community members about the services they offer. “We love doing tours so that the community can see all the amazing work being done here”, says director of the CSA program Steve Mentrek. They hold community tours on the first Wednesday of each month as well as school tours throughout the year. They also host other organizations working with individuals with autism, both nationally and internationally who come to Bittersweet Farm in hopes of modeling programming after Bittersweet’s. In the future, Bittersweet Farm would love the opportunity to expand their space and possibly open up plots of land to use as community gardens so that the community and Bittersweet can build connections and education around the area.
When asked what their favorite part of working at Bittersweet Farm was, Bittersweet community members provided a wide array of answers that all demonstrate the love and passion they hold for this place. Ben, a resident and garden worker, says “everyone is happy here” with a huge smile on his face. He goes into explaining how the staff provides so much support through positive encouragement and interactions. This program offers independence for adults with autism and allows them to explore different interests and passions. Steve goes into saying “if you have an interest, we will find you an area to work with and build that interest and skill set”. Lynn, a garden worker, expresses how much they treat her like a normal person. “They teach me and when I have questions they don’t make me feel stupid or different” she explains. Another garden worker, Thomas, explains that his favorite part is being able to work with his co-workers and being outside. Bittersweet Gardens allows individuals to display the gifts and talents they have been given. “We are one big family working toward one goal”!
Bittersweet Inc. provides supportive and well-structured programs through their residential and vocational services, as well as day programming. It has provided an outlet for the disability community in the area while raising awareness to the surrounding community. The community’s support means everything to the organization, so if you are interested in signing up to become a member of the CSA program head to http://www.bittersweetfarms.org/csa/ for more information. Also, for a complete list of services provided by Bittersweet head to http://www.bittersweetfarms.org/services/.