The growth towers at Zeponic Farms are packed to the brim with leafy green vegetables. Heads of lettuce stream out, waiting to be harvested, while stalks of kale begin to peek through. The seeds planted at this hydroponic farm are deep and are the result of work by two adults with disabilities.
Located in Woodbridge, Va., the farm is owned by Zach Zepf, who opened it with the goal of working with the local inclusive community. After watching his younger brother, Nick, who has autism, volunteer without developing meaningful experience, Zepf was determined to create better work opportunities for adults with disabilities.
With only gardening experience to guide him, Zepf started the farm with his brother in April 2016 and began searching for ways to incorporate members of the local inclusive community. He contacted the Mason LIFE Program after learning about it through one of his brother’s friends, and began speaking to the staff about internship opportunities.
The Mason Learning into Future Environments (LIFE) Program—part of the College of Education and Human Development and its Division of Special Education and disAbility Research—is a post-secondary program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who desire a university experience in a supportive academic environment.
“We wanted to make sure that we found an adult out of the Mason LIFE Program that really enjoyed what we were doing,” Zepf said.
Zepf connected with Mason LIFE student Mats von Quillfeldt, who likes farms and was interested in an internship. He has worked on seeding tasks at the farm for the past two months.
“I help to plant the seeds and prepare them to be germinated…and make sure they are ready to be transferred to the hanging section of the farm,” von Quillfeldt said.
The hydroponic method is essentially growing plants without soil. Roots are suspended directly into water, which helps them achieve growth. The structure of the farm is very procedural and task oriented, and because the farm is indoors the learning curve is not as steep for an outdoor farm, all of which can be important for adults with disabilities.
Von Quillfeldt will soon move on to transplanting, which is the process of moving the seeds to growth towers where they will remain until they are ready to be harvested.
Once harvested, the lettuce is sold to the food service company Sodexo and offered to Mason students in the Southside dining hall. John Teeple, director of Mason Dining, said recent dining surveys have shown a demand for fresher products, so they attempt to incorporate local produce into the menus. The farm now provides an average of 400 heads of lettuce per week.
Von Quillfeldt said he enjoys his internship with Zeponic Farms and enjoys giving back to his community.
“I like eating the fresh lettuce in Southside and I like to help provide a quality, sustainable product,” he said.
In the future, Zepf hopes to move closer to the Fairfax Campus to give more Mason LIFE students the opportunity to work with the farm and grow his ties with the Mason community.