The repurposed shipping container is tucked in a parking lot, behind an office building and warehouse in Woodbridge, Va. From the outside, it might not look that special.
But on the inside . . . well.
Rows of seedlings poke out of trays that are nestled under a shiny workspace. More than 200 thin towers, packed with growing produce, stretch to the back. The lighting casts a purple glow, and visitors trade sneakers for shower slippers, to keep the space uncontaminated by the outside world.
The cramped container has a bit of a “Mad Scientist” vibe, or at least a “Mad Scientist Who Is Super Into Locally Grown Produce” vibe. This is Zeponic Farms, a hydroponic farm that is more than just a source of lettuce. The Northern Virginia farm also partners with a George Mason University program for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
“I’m really big on being a social entrepreneur,” said Zach Zepf, a founding partner of Zeponic Farms. “I think that if you’re going to start a product or a service, it should have something that’s meaningful.”
The farm, which grows lettuce, greens and herbs, works with Mason LIFE, a four-year program that offers educational and work experiences to a community with special needs. This partnership is still pretty new, but Zepf said he hopes for an expansion of the operation, and an expanded role for Mason LIFE.
“We bought this thing to be a life changer,” said Brenda Zepf, Zach’s mother. “Not only for our son but for other young adults like him.”
Brenda Zepf isn’t talking about Zach there. She’s talking about his brother, Nic, who has autism and other chronic health issues. The Zepf siblings would garden together in the back yard of their Springfield, Va., home, said Zach Zepf, growing kale, zucchini, tomatoes and chard.
“Not really lettuce, funny enough,” he said.
Now they have this farm, which is a really fancy upgrade. Nic, 23, is not a student in the Mason LIFE program, but Zach, who is 25, said he works there, too.
“It’s really special to be able to give my brother a career like this,” Zach Zepf said. “It’s an opportunity that he probably wouldn’t have unless someone created it for him.”
The LIFE program is not the farm’s only connection to the university. Lettuce grown at the farm is sold to Sodexo, the company that operates Mason’s campus dining services. It is served in a dining hall, said Caitlin Lundquist, Sodexo marketing manager.
“We sell them everything we have,” Zach Zepf said.
The farm started a year ago. Zepf said he hopes one day to bring it closer to the public university’s campus in Fairfax County. He would also like to grow the farm, either with another container or by moving to a larger facility, which could accommodate more people.
“Whether we get more containers, build our own containers or expand into a warehouse setting, the goal is to expand our role with Mason LIFE and eventually provide employment,” he wrote in an email, adding that it would require the farm to move closer, “which we will be doing.”
This is the first full semester that Mason LIFE has sent a student to the Zeponic Farms container, which is about 14 miles from Fairfax. That student, Mats von Quillfeldt, is a 20-year-old from Charlottesville who has autism.
One of the characteristics of von Quillfeldt’s autism is echolalia, which means he repeats words or phrases that others say. That doesn’t really matter at Zeponic Farms, where he works solo as he goes through the seeding process.
“Mats has got a very brilliant mind, and he’s got a lot going on in his mind,” said Andrew Hahn, a Mason LIFE employment coordinator. “But because of the echolalia, it makes it a little bit more difficult to have a conversation, for example. But Mats does exceptionally well in his academic program. It’s just a little bit of a communication barrier.”
When Mason LIFE started in 2002, there were about 12 other postsecondary programs like it in the nation. Now, there are about 250, said Heidi Graff, the program’s director.
“It’s really quite a movement within the field of education,” she said.
About 50 students participate in Mason LIFE, taking courses and developing skills through a work specialty. Students work in fields that include child development and pet grooming, she said, and some, like von Quillfeldt, are placed in farming roles.
“For our students, what makes farming in particular a good skill is the repetitive nature,” Hahn said. “For different plants, obviously, there’s different seasons to plant. But as far as the routine goes, for most things, it’s pretty typical. They can build an easy routine.”
That’s true. Hydroponics can seem like pretty scientific stuff, but really, all hydroponics has to work through is a simple, step-by-step guide. The tasks can be therapeutic, Hahn said.
“It’s good for our students to be able to see the work that they’re getting done,” he said. “And it keeps them motivated.”
Brenda Zepf said that she has taken her son Nic to a dining hall on Mason’s campus and shown him the salad bar. She told him the lettuce was his — that he had picked it himself.
“Kids with special needs and young adults with special needs have the right to work,” Brenda Zepf said. “They need to reach their full potential and have the same work opportunities as anybody else, and to have a true sense of purpose when they wake up in the morning, just like anybody else.”