April 12, 2022, Baltimore, MD
Kate Joyce, Executive Director
Vanessa Lubiner, Sustainable Agriculture Instructor
Jamie Sumague, Flora-Therapy Program Manager
Laith Nichols, Greenhouse & Chicken farmer apprentice
Charles Smith, Vegetable Farmer Apprentice
Skodrif Toyne, Flower Farmer Apprentice
For more Information:
Not far from the I-695 interchange on the north side of Baltimore, TALMAR farm is nestled in the rolling hills of a verdant, peaceful dale as part of Cromwell Valley Park. Once known as the Eck Family Farm, the Eck’s sold their farm to Baltimore County who then turned it into a green space for the community to enjoy. Of the 460 acres of rolling hills and forest, TALMAR leases ten acres for $1 per year to support veterans and others with complex challenges ranging from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to autism, to traumatic brain injury (TBI).
As the rain clouds parted, I entered this inviting farm featuring a silo, two barns, an implement shed, a farmhouse, and a house on the crest of the hill. As I walked closer to the center, I spotted three men gathering violet blossoms in stainless steel bowls. I found out later that these were to be cooked and made into a syrup for eating.
Being accessible to Everyone
Kate Joyce, TALMAR Executive Director, greeted me in her office which was the home to some “teenage” chicks in a large tub under a heat lamp. They would soon be ready to be introduced to the rest of the flock. She explained that many of their growers really enjoy watching them each day as they mature into much larger egg-laying hens. “That’s quite a transformation!” she exclaimed.
The farm’s porta-potty was larger than usual and on level ground - to accommodate those in wheelchairs and with other disabilities. “That’s the goal of this farm - to make it accessible to everyone!” explained Kate. “With every passing season, we are moving closer to that vision. For example, this year we are moving the beehives down from the far hill to be close to our main field. That way, more of our growers get to observe them.”
On the way out to the tour, I was introduced to Charles Smith. It was obvious how pleased he was to be there. In his humble way, he shook my hand and smiled. Kate introduced him as the apprentice farmer in charge of vegetables. He graduated from the advanced course and accepted the offer to be a paid farm apprentice. “Charles has done a lot of work in hydroponics. Now he’s back to this farm to learn more!”, Kate shared. “He’s not going to buy a farm, yet he is really into the therapeutic impact of the farm. This job gives him a way to add value and earn money.”
Charles’ counterpart, Laith Nichols, is in charge of the greenhouse. “We grow year-round here with LED grow lights. It’s our food forest. We even have banana trees coming next week.” Kate added. “We want to try new things. The greenhouse is a great place for tomatoes and vertical growing squash. Lots of things grow up the walls.” Not only do the two farm apprentices manage their respective areas, but they also ensure the morning and evening chores are done. These include turning on and off lights for the greenhouse in the winter and pasturing the chickens in the morning and securing them in their roost for the night. There must have been about 30 chickens happily roaming about their large pen.
Kate went on to explain, “We used to have a farm manager, but their primary goal was profitability. We noticed the misalignment with our mission. The farm manager was determined to have the growers pick perfect tomatoes, but some of the growers were color blind and couldn’t do that. That’s why we have done this restructuring. With the farm apprentice model, each apprentice is assigned to focus on a specific stewardship. We just have two apprentices on the farm. They actually live here.” Of TALMAR’s ten leased acres, only two acres are farmed. That’s part of the five year contract TALMAR has with the Veterans Affairs.
As part of the Veterans Affairs Farms program, TALMAR is a compensated work therapy program. There are two programs offered: 1) Therapeutic horticulture program that serves people with disabilities in a number of ways which includes one-on-one therapy, social programs and dementia-friendly cafes and 2) VAFARMS program that serves veterans with a behavioral healthcare diagnosis. While the programs have two separate instructors, everything at TALMAR is available to all participants except for the mushroom project which is designed for veterans who continue to the advanced program.
Kate and her staff have figured out how to run both programs synergistically. Veteran Affairs Farms has tried this VAFARMS compensated-work-therapy program in ten states so far. TALMAR’s 15-week program has seven growers come to work on Monday and Wednesday sessions, and another set of seven growers who come on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The first program is called “Introduction to Nature and Farming”. If they graduate from the introductory course, they are offered the chance to enroll in the “Advanced Program”, which helps them move from an observatory and interactive role to a farmer vocational role. Each year, TALMAR is able to offer two introductory sessions and one advanced session.
Introduction to Farming
The “Introduction to Farming” program includes not only routine farm work in the morning, but also afternoon activities like cutting flowers and making bouquets, using plants as a natural source to dye tea towels. It’s part of our art therapy program which we do in partnership with graduate students from the University of Notre Dame of Maryland. Kate explained, “Not everyone likes to get their hands dirty. That’s why we offer art as a complement to the farming program.”
Not everyone wants to continue. Kate explained, “Almost every veteran who comes acknowledges the great life-skill and vocational-skill grounding the farm provides, yet not everyone is willing or able to work in Maryland’s summer heat and humidity.” Even with the introductory course behind them, they can move on with their lives and a career of their choice. Kate remarked, “During COVID, nearly 80% of the growers decided to come back for the advanced program. Last year, it was only 50%. Some can’t choose it because of health barriers.”
TALMAR also has a program called “Memory Cafe” to serve those who suffer from dementia. They provide them with lots of social activities to help stimulate their minds. For example, the participants make bird feeders out of the Luffas. Kate shared, “It’s fun for them to realize that the 50-cent vegetable seed packet is now turned into food. It’s magic!” Many say they feel relieved when they enter our campus. The stress just dissolves.
The Advanced Program
The Advanced Program is more project-based according to each participant’s interest. One advanced course is beekeeping. Mushroom cultivation will be a new project this year. That is something they can possibly do indoors without sunlight and still grow food. When they graduate, they can theoretically start their own business growing mushrooms. Kate explained, “As they learn the business side of agriculture, we ask them questions like, ‘What do you want to call your business?’ They learn how to market themselves. We aim to make this course very practical while helping feel the peace of this farm.” Kate affirmed. We also use the kitchen where they can learn how to make healthy meals from our farm’s produce.
Sit and Spot
She continued, “Farming is used to manage symptoms. The day begins at 8:00 am. Each grower is invited to “Sit and Spot”. During “Sit and Spot”, each grower is asked to find a location apart from all others to sit and observe for ten minutes. They are encouraged to notice what has changed, how have they impacted that change, what are their feelings. After ten minutes of quiet, they huddle to learn what the farm task is for the day. The labor component of the program is usually in the morning for two hours. Then, after a break or lunch, they hold a 90-minute classroom. Kate explained, “Where possible, we let people run their own show. That means when that person succeeds, we all succeed. When they don’t, we don’t. If there’s zero tomatoes this year, we can still say we have been successful.” Kate shared how important their daily and weekly planning process is. “Our planning includes giving everyone a chance to be a leader. In the afternoon, a nature walk helps the participants notice what is changing.”
Managing The Farm around People
This is Kate’s fourth season on the farm. One of her main jobs is to write the grants needed to keep funding the farm. The farm runs off of one contract with the Veteran Affairs and then a few grants. 2019 was the pilot year. Kate continued, “Staffing the farm includes working together with two other full-time, year-round employees: the occupational therapist and the veteran farm instructor. I work closely with our occupational therapist to support her program. Those who attend her program are referred to as participants. These include those with autism, schizophrenia, stroke survival, trauma survival which may have been caused with sex trafficking. In this serene environment, they are able to have a social responsibility. Whatever their disability may be, we find ways to give them a task that they can succeed at - whether that is planting peas, planting flowers, or making bouquets for their mothers of the plants that they grew from seed.”
The Veteran’s program is more focused on healing and being part of the Earth. The Veterans have a farm instructor. Our current instructor specializes in fruit trees. Kate added, “We also want to include the culinary aspect of farming - to show cheap, easy ways to eat what grows on the farm from season to season. For example, we made an ephemeral salad out of chickweed and dandelions last week.” Every day, the veterans take a daily mental health survey, just seven questions, that help us assess how each individual is responding to their farm experience. Kate explained, “We learn whether the program is really moving the needle for them. You don’t have to put your name down. Just put something down like ‘carrot’ so we know how you are changing or not changing over time. This data really helps us apply for grants. Attracting funding is a skill. Unfortunately, it takes time away from the farm work.” Kate added.
Pursuing TALMAR’s Vision for the Farm
TALMAR continues to evolve to leverage its best resources and deliver to the ever-changing needs of the “growing” veterans. The farm is such a life-giving asset for the community. When asked what Kate’s ten-year vision of the farm was, she shared, “I want to make this farm to be 100% accessible for everyone no matter what their challenge may be. Designing for ultimate accessibility may look like trellising pole beans, peas or tomatoes so that harvesting can be done without bending over. We added wind chimes to help someone who is blind to orient themselves on the farm. We spend most of our Friday staff meeting identifying what has to be done and then discussing who can do each task. Based on each grower’s abilities, we can ensure they have the tools, knowledge, and skills to experience success. Volunteers can do the groundwork, those tasks that are difficult to reach or do.”
Kate continued, “This farm is also a self-discovery resource and also serves as a connector to specific community resources that will enable each grower to re-establish their lives. Further, this farm serves as a bridge between the city and the country.” Kate concluded, “TALMAR is about training people who want to work on a community farm. We don’t want to compete with local farmers, so we offer a farm stand five days a week for people to buy their own food. We also sell the food internally to each other’s programs, always tracking the value of what we grow.“
The Power of Farming to Restore Lives
As I watched the growers finish weeding the long row, I asked Vanessa Lubiner, Sustainable Agriculture Instructor, what they enjoy most about their job. They explained, “What’s not to love here? I love farming in a way that lifts people’s lives. It’s a pleasure to go to work. I'm in my third week of the program. The growers feel like they own it now. People feel that energy. They no longer need me to be by their side. Our job is to preserve this atmosphere so people feel welcome here. This is a safe space for everyone. We want everyone to feel this is ‘your space’,” they added.
“It feels good to work with people to share what you love with them. I learn so much from talking with them. They have such a different experience set. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have directly experienced war. We work with homeless veterans who suffer from TBI (traumatic brain injuries). I’ve learned that ‘any chance you get to connect with Nature and people is healing!” We get to be models of good behavior 40 hours a week.”
Sharing Challenges to Learn from Each Other
When asked what she would wish for to help her run her farm better, Kate said, “I really appreciate talking with other farmers and even specialists who have dealt with the problem that I am now facing. It’s great to be able to put a question out there and have someone answer it. Recently, we’ve seen the need to learn skills of ‘de-escalation’ so that we can work with these ‘alpha-dog’ personalities who get very upset about things that don’t matter that much.” In this case, we are holding a seminar and have invited an experienced therapist so I can learn more about it. That way we don’t get into a fight about whose flower is more red.” How you deal with arguers or those still struggling with substance abuse are just some examples of the challenges we face each day.”
Life is so much better!
As I prepared to leave, a veteran graduate of the program came to me. He introduced himself as Sye. He shared how much in despair his life had been in the midst of COVID. “My life was just one downward spiral.” Then he added, “Man, compared to the time I entered here, it’s been quite a metamorphosis - a transformation. Life is so much better!” Since graduating from the Advanced Course, Sye has become a professional urban farmer transforming a part of his neighborhood that has been traumatized by racial violence into a farm for the community. That’s what transformation at TALMAR can do!
Author: Farmer Karl
Sye’s Story - "Finding Self at the Farm"