SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Highway 9, just yards away from Pogonip, is the vibrant Common Roots Farm.

There, farmers water ruby strawberries, hearty kale and mesmerizing dahlias.

Twenty different food crops and 30 flower varieties are tended to by volunteers and farm staff.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Many of those community members who work the farm are people who live with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some also live with physical disabilities.

“We’re like any farm you’d find and not a ‘special needs farm,'” explained Farm Manager Nina Vukicevic. “This place is for people with and without disabilities, the beauty of it is you’re offered the same opportunities so far as they make sense for you and your abilities.”

Thomas Kernot, who has autism and epilepsy, has been volunteering at the farm for a few years.

On a recent morning he watered row crops. When asked how he was, Kernot replied “happy.”

“Thomas loves to come here,” Kernot’s support staff Cecilia Vacquez said. “A few years ago, he didn’t like to be around a lot of other people … he would be so nervous and now he interacts a lot more.”

Five years ago, Common Roots Farm in Santa Cruz was filled with waist high weeds.

The property — on Golf Course Drive — had been historically farmed for a century, but not in more recent years.

The farm offers weekly shares of vegetables, produce, eggs and flowers through a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA.

“My big slogan is no pity produce here — my focus is growing the highest quality products we can,” said Heidi Cartan, executive director of Common Roots Farm. “I want people to buy because we have great quality stuff.”

Cartan founded the farm with her husband. Their adult son, Noah, has cerebral palsy.

The couple wanted to open up a space where the disability community could positively contribute and find purpose in the environmental sphere.

“One of the big issues of the day is climate change and environmental stewardship,” Cartan said. “I didn’t see a place for my son to fit into solving that problem and this is a place where people with disabilities can have a leadership role and stewardship in addressing those things.”

The farm, which doesn’t use herbicides or pesticides, relies on its staff and volunteers to keep it going.

“There’s so much work that has to happen on a farm every day to keep it humming and these are places where people can contribute — not in token ways — but in genuine ways,” Cartan said.

Looking to future

Common Roots has a few projects in the pipeline to expand access and produce offerings.

In September the farm will unveil its upgraded 3,000-square-foot Seed to Salad accessible garden and farm path.

Cartan said the projects are crucial for community members with disabilities.

The perimeter path, which will run along the entire farm, will allow people who use mobility equipment — such as a wheelchair — to more deeply experience Common Roots.

The expanded accessible garden will offer people opportunities to work the farm beyond row crops. Vegetables will be planted in raised and roll under garden beds.

“It’s the same process to trellis a tomato, but instead of on a 100-foot bed, you’re doing it on a small raised bed and it’s much more accessible,” Cartan said.

“Building the barn is the last anchor point for us to really be a working year-round production farm, we need a place to wash and store product, where we have coolers, a germination closet to start seeds,” Cartan said.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the farm particularly hard. Common Roots previously worked with local restauranteurs and Santa Cruz Shakespeare, as well as ran a farm stand, but those endeavors had to be paused.

Cartan hopes to reinstitute those programs in the coming year.

Farm expanding

The farm community is also expanding. Next door to Common Roots, Coastal Haven Families LLC — an adjoining pocket neighborhood that will offer homes to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — is under construction.

The neighborhood will boast 11 homes. Cartan’s son Noah will also be a community member at Coastal Haven.

“Noah is very social, and we wanted him to live with other people in a community, and we really felt like we could do something with other families that would be much better than anything any individual family could do alone,” Cartan said.

Future residents such as Thomas Kernot, may choose to also participate in farm work next door. Move in is slated for Sept. 1.

Beyond an organic farm, Common Roots is blooming into a thriving community.

“We’ve been so busy building a startup and now we’re going to flip the switch and have people use it,” Cartan said.

© 2021 Santa Cruz Sentinel
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC