Growing greens and workers with autism

Walking into Your Local Greens, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by floor-to-ceiling troughs of hydroponic lettuce. What took my breath away weren’t the greens, but the mission behind them.

The North Carolina company was started by two fathers of children with special needs. These parents were concerned what would happen to their children once they were gone. It is often challenging for people with autism to find gainful employment. As the mom of a son with autism, it’s a worry I have, and he’s only 8 years old.

About 60% of the company’s workforce has autism. Working with the state, they identify potential employees who then work with a job coach to train them. They start at $10 per hour and work up to $15 per hour.  The company works with each employee to determine their work schedule because some only want part-time work and others are looking for full-time employment. Workers are also eligible for scholarships to the local community college.

“So far it’s been a win-win,” Dennis Harrell, who works with the company, told me.  “You can’t ask for a more dedicated person. Once they learn the job, they do it perfectly.”

It takes a team to grow 250,000 pounds of leafy greens a year. Every other day they plant 3,757 seeds by hand. Trays are put in a germination cart, which is basically a giant incubator. After two days, plants move to the nursery. 

Two weeks later they are weighed, measured, and then moved to the grow structure, where the plants are placed by hand into Styrofoam trays that float in troughs of water. Here, day becomes night: The company doesn’t turn on the grow lights until 3 p.m. because electricity is less expensive at night. It also benefits workers who may be sensitive to the bright lighting, which you can see in the photo above. There are motion lights, so workers aren’t working in the dark. 

From seed to harvest is only 39 days. The goal is to harvest 700 pounds of lettuce at each harvest. Each plant is harvested by hand. The root ball is removed, and the leaves fall loosely into a container. The lettuce is placed by hand into 1- and 3-pound bags or clamshells and weighed so they are exactly the weight they should be.

The company has developed a loyal following. While I was there a customer came in the building looking to buy a 1-pound bag of lettuce. They also have contracts with retail stores and wholesale suppliers. Their lettuce is the only certified Kosher lettuce in the United States, opening a huge market. Their goal is to build up the company, so they are growing 1 million pounds of lettuce each year.

In two years, Your Local Greens has taken a building that used to manufacture hosiery and turned it into a company that grows food but, more importantly to this special needs mom, grows opportunities for adults with autism.  

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