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A Farm Less Ordinary growing successful crops, people

Greg Masucci of A Farm Less Ordinary, which delivers pounds of vegetables each week to Community Supported Agriculture partners. The organization also donated vegetables to Loudoun Hunger Relief. Times-Mirror/Veronike Collazo
Bluemont-based A Farm Less Ordinary and Ashburn’s Topgolf are teaming up to raise funds and awareness for A Farm Less Ordinary’s mission to employ people with disabilities.

The two-year-old nonprofit farm was founded by husband and wife pair Greg Masucci and Maya Wechsler after the two became involved in the disabilities community. Their source of inspiration is their own son, Max, who is autistic and nonverbal.

Loudoun residents will be able to support this cause at a Nov. 12 event at Topgolf. This will be A Farm Less Ordinary’s first ever-event fundraiser.

“Our goal is to sell as many tickets as we can, to raise as much money as we can and also to raise awareness that we’re here, for one thing, because a lot of parents probably don’t know that we’re here and we’re always looking for people to hire,” Greg Masucci said.

The Masuccis moved to their Bluemont farm in 2014 from Capitol Hill. Within weeks of moving in, Masucci and Wechsler started talking about somehow using their land to help the disabilities community. With such a high unemployment rate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, they settled on employment as their main focus for the cause.

Students with disabilities age out of the school system at age 22, Masucci said, and oftentimes parents are not fully prepared.

“A lot of times somebody has to quit their jobs and it disproportionately falls on the women. It creates a lot of financial pressure on the family and with that comes a lot of other pressures,” Masucci said. “Oftentimes those who are with the disability and their caregiver, they end up sort of socially isolated because they don’t have money, they can’t do anything, they’re almost house-bound and with that comes a lot of negative health outcomes — obesity, diabetes, things like that,” he said.

They settled on the idea of creating a farm, and after doing some research, found that the idea of “Green Care” — the use of agriculture as a therapy tool for those with disabilities — already existed. This further encouraged the duo.

From there, the couple just had to learn how to farm. Having previously lived in D.C. — and before that, Chicago — neither had a background in agriculture. Maya Masucci learned the farming aspect, taking classes with the Virginia and U.S. Departments of Agriculture, and Greg learned the engineering parts of a working farm.

The couple had a successful first season in 2015 while practicing how to farm and donated all the food to Loudoun’s Abused Women’s Shelter and Loudoun Hunger Relief (LHR). Then, in 2016, A Farm Less Ordinary was officially established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

The first year, the farm employed four people and had a 25-member support team from the Community Supported Agriculture program, in which CSA members buy in to the program for $400 at the start of the growing season, and in exchange for the money, they get a weekly box of fresh vegetables of what A Farm Less Ordinary grows during the 15-week growing season.

“Our boxes weigh an average of about 12 to 15 pounds so it’s actually quite a good deal for getting vegetables,” Greg Masucci said. “And you knew who grew them and you also know the money’s going to supporting a really great cause.”

The early months

To get the farm off the ground in 2016, the duo, their four employees and volunteers set up the CSA, put up a shed with a walk-in refrigerator, installed drip tape and needed deer fencing to protect the farm’s anticipated output of fresh food.

Now this year, with double the staff, they put up a temporary green house, chicken coop and are working on a goat and alpaca shelter, Masucci said.

They’ve continued with the CSA and also started a partnership with Loudoun Hunger Relief through a joint grant trying to improve the quality of food available to those who may feel the pangs of hunger and suffer food shortages, including good, healthy food.

“A lot of people with food insecurity issues, they don’t always have the best eating habits. Then food pantries themselves sort of lends itself to not a lot of fresh food,” Masucci said. “We had a joint grant where we had people on this program signed up to get fresh vegetables and so we made them CSA customers, essentially. So, they got a box of vegetables, which is kind of neat.”

Masucci said he and his wife love when they can partner with other nonprofits to serve the greater community. In working with other nonprofits and surrounding businesses, Masucci hopes his employees can learn more skills and become exposed to more industries.

“One of our goals is we think of this farm as being a laboratory in a sense because what we want to do here is create good employees,” Masucci said. “A lot of the folks who come to us have either had no real experience in the workplace because they haven’t been given a chance because of their disabilities, or some people have been outside in the workplace and it hasn’t worked well because there was a disconnect between their employer expectations and what they were doing.”

While employers can make accommodations to help employees with disabilities, Masucci said these employees are not always good self-advocates. They don’t want to say anything because they’re afraid it’s going to create a problem but then create a problem by not saying anything, he said.

“So, we’re trying to create good model employees. To make sure they understand coming to work on time is important, showing up every day you’re scheduled. And if you can’t come, you’ve got to call, talk to someone about taking breaks, all those things we kind of take for granted from our first jobs,” Masucci said. “Some of these folks haven’t really had that, so we start with that baseline and then what we try to do is match the job to their abilities and interests like any good counselor would, I guess.”

Big plans for the future

Long term, Masucci would like to create more operations like A Farm Less Ordinary but in different industries like transportation and logistics, moving and storage and hospitality, he said. Since farming is seasonal, he would like to create more year-round job opportunities for people with disabilities.

“I’m always a little sad this time of the year because we don’t have that much more work for them after this. We’ve got a couple more weekends left of this and then they’ll go back to struggling to find a job and it’s really tough when you have a disability,” Masucci said.

People with disabilities intellectual and developmental disabilities have an 85 percent unemployment rate, Masucci said. And when people with disabilities can’t find work, that often means a parent or caregiver will have to stay home full time to keep an eye on them, which in turn creates more unused labor.

“It’s a staggering statistic and behind that statistic, every one of those people has a family and every one of those families has a caregiver who oftentimes can’t work themselves. So even if you look at it from an economic perspective. You have all of this unused labor in a time when people can’t even find people to fill jobs and here’s 85 percent of these people out of work,” Masucci said. “So, America needs to work on it. We’re just one small part of that. We want to grow as big as we can.”

In addition to expanding in staff, A Farm Less Ordinary has also expanded its fields, adding an experimental field with blueberries and raspberries. Masucci hopes to start creating specialty products like jams and gourmet pickles.

The addition of goats will come the possibility of dairy products, and the alpacas will hopefully help employees who are sensory seeking as well as make A Farm Less Ordinary more of a family destination--another potential source of revenue.

Building confidence, giving back

“Our feeling is if kids come out here and they see people with disabilities working, then they’ll think of them as people who work as opposed to people who don’t work. That’s a powerful thing,” Masucci said. “You’ve got to train the next generation to think of them as people who want a life like you. They want to have a job, they like to contribute, they like to do something meaningful.”

“The other thing, when we get kids out who do have disabilities, they have it in their head that they can still be productive citizens, and that’s really important because a lot of times they’re getting a lot of messaging telling them they’re not going to be productive citizens and we need to change that,” he added.

A Farm Less Ordinary delivered 500 to 600 pounds of food per week every week to CSA customers this past year and also donated 3,000 to 4,000 pounds to LHR, all the while giving jobs to people who are often not given a chance.

“In high school you get judged a lot for your disabilities. Maya and Greg don’t judge you at all. They have experience with this kind of thing so they help you with it,” Robert Field said. Field, 19 is one of the current eight employees at A Farm Less Ordinary.

As the operation is closing out its second year, the pair hope they will keep expanding staff and products, and hopefully be able to raise enough money to bring on a farm manager/volunteer coordinator full time. Both Masucci and Wechsler work at the farm as volunteers and juggle full time jobs in addition to their two kids.

In addition to community partners like Topgolf, the couple have gotten tremendous support from family and friends and other community organizations like Legacy Farms, Leesburg Presbyterian Church and the Leesburg Rotary Club. With next Sunday’s event, Masucci hopes to connect with even more partners to help further the cause.

The relationship with Topgolf resulted from a chance encounter. "When I met Maya and Greg through a networking event earlier this year, they began to tell me their back story and I felt compelled to assist them on their journey to raise funds," Sherae Bell, Topgolf's event sales manager, said. "I love working with nonprofits that are so committed to their cause."

Mascussi said everyone should be able to understand those with disabilities because every human has struggles and challenges.

“We all have disabilities,” Masucci said, “and I think we need to start looking at people for their abilities, not their disabilities.”

To buy tickets to the Topgolf fundraiser benefiting A Farm Less Ordinary, visit http://www.afarmlessordinary.org/falltopgolf-fundraiser. For more information on volunteer, employment or donation opportunities at A Farm Less ordinary, go to afarmlessordinary.org.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect Maya Wechsler goes by her maiden name. A previous version of this article referred to her as Maya Masucci per a press release.

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