As sweat trickles along the frames of his glasses, 12-year-old Charles DeMarco empties the last few drops of water onto the row of zucchini plants.
He watches the water droplets for a full 15 seconds before turning to refill the watering can.
For the past seven months, students and teachers from Eden Florida, a group home and school for children with autism, have worked to turn a 10-acre grass plot into a sprawling organic produce garden and fruit orchard.
The leader of the project, John Puig, is a self-described environmental humanitarian and sustainability specialist. He is better known in Naples educational facilities as Captain John, the guy with the vegetable oil-powered car.
Since September, classes from the organization’s Eimerman Educational Center have taken to the field to work alongside Puig a few times each week. The students are assigned individual tasks or group projects that effectively help run the farm.
Seedlings are planted. Weeds are pulled. Crops harvested.
“It makes me happy,” said Charles, pictured above, working rows of greens in the garden with his classmates on May 6.
“I like putting water on the plants because it makes them grow better and my parents like the food,” he added.
Each day’s work is guided by lessons from Puig on how their garden is unique. It is sustainable, contains a broad spectrum of crops and it is completely organic.
A worm compost system creates fertilizer from shredded paper and byproducts from the field. The produce grows in the sandy soil because of the compost. Plants are disinfected using sunlight instead of chemicals.
Puig says the student project is an exceptional fit for the students with autism, providing nutritious food, enrichment and possible vocational training.
“Plants require people who are detail-oriented,” said Puig. “Most children, you repeat things every couple of minutes, whereas these guys, I tell them once and they honor that. They have a profound ability to absorb these things.”
A major reward for the students is the garden’s bounty. Crops are distributed among members of Eden Florida’s community as well as being sold to the general public.
“Our foundation was based on proper nutrition, and healthy organic food’s ability to reduce the symptoms of autism. There is research that says that chemical exposure may increase the symptoms of autism. Low-sugar diets, high in greens, vitamins and minerals help normalize behavior,” said Puig.
While he admits that the research has yet to be proven, it does not take a scientist to conclude that eating healthier organic food can benefit anyone.
When the garden began yielding its first crops this season, Eden Florida teachers decided to take some students to local farmers markets, where Puig was selling the produce.
“To see where it goes and to see that people actually pay money for what they are doing, I think that that was an ‘Aha! moment.’ It all made sense. This is why we do what we do every week,” said teacher Cindi Thompson.
“A lot of customers have no idea that they are walking up to a booth full of children with autism from an organic garden,” Puig said. “They just walk up and start negotiating and haggling with them and sometimes the kids get stressed out. That is also good that it happens in small bites so they can learn to deal with life.”
The winter freeze and frequent rain showers at the farmer’s market created a difficult first season for the project. Puig said 90 percent of the original crops were killed in the freezes and the rains drove away potential customers from the market.
“The majority of underwriting for this project is sales. This is a market-driven enterprise. If we don’t sell vegetables, we can’t survive,” said Puig.
He is hoping, as more customers sign up their businesses for the produce, the project will withstand its growing pains. So far, two local restaurants are ordering off of the farm, the Jolly Cricket and the Bayshore Landing Cafe. Puig hopes that the quality of the produce and word of mouth will help the garden to become self-sufficient.
“It is stuff that was just picked minutes ago, local and fresh. We try to sell a fresher, better product at just under retail. That has been our business model,” said Puig.
For more information on Eden Florida’s organic produce, e-mail Puig at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Connect with David Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/david-albers