Where Dreams (and Greens) Sprout

At Arthur & Friends greenhouses, the disabled grow by growing vegetables hydroponically.

Wendie Blanchard started a hydroponic greenhouse to help her nephew, Arthur, and others with disabilities find meaningful work.
Photo by Robert Yaskovic/Agency New Jersey.

In 2006, Wendie Blanchard’s 28-year-old nephew, Arthur, who has Down syndrome, would ride 45 minutes with other disabled workers to a factory-like setting where he would fold his hands and wait to find out what items he would be given to package. When he complained to his aunt about his tedious days, she thought, “People always need to eat…I’ve been a lifelong gardener…and hydroponic systems are much cheaper than a traditional greenhouse.”

Two years later, the first Arthur & Friends hydroponic greenhouse opened in Wantage, in Sussex County. Blanchard, 60, who has been a teacher, college administrator, grant writer and graphic designer, among other things, got the greenhouse built with grants from the Northwest New Jersey Community Action Program (NORWESCAP), the Kessler Foundation and the 1772 Foundation. She now serves as program director of the original facility, which moved to Augusta, as well as newer ones in Hackettstown, Orange and Bridgeton.

Now, when Arthur and others arrive, they greet each other with cheerful hellos, pick some upbeat music, and proudly go about the business of checking water levels, planting seeds, gathering lettuce, peppers, kale, bok choy, broccoli and other produce, and packing it in white boxes that say “Cultivating a Better Planet.” The vegetables end up at farmers’ markets and on tables at places like the Whitney Museum and Gramercy Tavern in New York, Andre’s in Newton, and Blue Morel in Morristown.

“The disabled are often the most marginalized members of society,” says Blanchard. “Everyone wants someone to love them, something to care about and meaningful work.” 

Not counting paid supervisors, the four greenhouses currently provide meaningful work for 37 trainees with disabilities and 13 part-time, paid employees. James, who is autistic and learned about hydroponics at his vocational high school, says, “I think it’s pretty neat doing something I studied,” while Todd, a former businessman who suffered a brain aneurysm, remembers the transformative day last February when he first walked into the greenhouse. “It was freezing outside, but in here it was nearly 80 degrees, and everything was so green and beautiful.”

Each greenhouse, costing around $50,000 to $200,000 to build, depending on size and site, can cover its costs, with help from grant money, in 18 months or less, Blanchard says. (A for-profit greenhouse, she says, can be in the black within 2½ years.) Trainees come from a referring agency that also provides them with therapeutic services. Waiting time for a trainee position is about six months. The aim is usually to work with trainees until they can handle other jobs in the community.  

Blanchard envisions greenhouses at hospitals, rehab centers and schools across the country. This may sound grandiose, but the day she got a call from Washington, she knew she was onto something.  “It was a crazy-busy day, as usual.  When someone said, ‘The White House is on the phone,’ I said, ‘Yeah, right,’” she laughs. Nevertheless, the call led to an invitation to the 2011 State of the Union Address.

Inquiries have come from 34 states and nine countries, including Haiti and India.  A license can be purchased for $10,000. In New Jersey, licenses have been bought by Garden State Urban Farms, Aging with Autism and the Alpine Learning Group.

“My dream is to create so much demand,” Blanchard says, “that we will be creating greenhouses everywhere.”


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