Harvesting serenity: First Step Farms uses agriculture to overcome addiction

Finding something lost: A sense of serenity and a connection to others are two of the things often lost in addiction, notes Craig White of First Step Farm. But those are also the very two things this farm-based recovery program seeks to grow. Photo by George Etheredge

Photos by George Etheredge 

Arnold Hughes spends his day surrounded by plants. From petunias and ferns to tomatoes and peppers, the retail store he manages on Smoky Park Highway is crammed full of flowers, fresh vegetables and canned goods — so much so that even after five years of walking around the store and its greenhouse, Hughes still knocks his head on a hanging basket or two.

“All these flowers and all these tomatoes are great, but we don’t really need them,” Hughes notes as he walks around the shelves and coolers filled with jellies, honey, vegetables and blooms. “We’re here to grow people, not plants.”

“We try to take a person who is broken and build their confidence, their self worth and their stability,” says Arnold Hughes. “We try to empower them as much as possible.” Photo by George Etheredge

The store that Hughes manages is part of First Step Farms WNC, which includes the retail store and two farmsteads, both located on historic farmland in Candler. One site grows vegetable starts that supply small farms in five states. The other grows flowers that have been used at weddings, school graduations, local businesses and even Dollywood. But the farms’ primary purpose goes beyond agriculture — the two sites are home to a substance abuse recovery program that uses farming to build vocational skills, encourage physical health and restore self-confidence.

The goal of the farms, Hughes explains, is to take people who are broken and build them back up. Residents come to stay on the farmsteads, living together and working the land. They’ll also take shifts in the retail store, selling what they grow as well as goods from regional farmers. For Hughes, it’s an experience he knows firsthand as he came to First Step to overcome his own addiction back in 2010.

“When I hit my bottom, I was at the hospital, and they told me, ‘You’re a drunk,’” Hughes recalls. “Well, of course I knew that. But beyond that, I didn’t really know what I should do. I heard about this place, and I knew I liked to garden. I knew I liked to work with plants.”

First Step Farms opened in 1976 to “meager beginnings,” says executive director Mike Plemmons, though it quickly grew. The 17-acre farm that holds the men’s facility was purchased in 1977, and the 32-acre farm that holds the women’s facility was added in 1992, purchased from a family that still lives next door.

The women’s farm has 11 greenhouses and living space for 15 residents, while the men’s facility offers 19 greenhouses, an additional 15 acres of land leased from neighboring farmers and room for up to 22 residents. At both sites, tending the earth serves  as the foundation for the 12-step-based program led by on-site counselors, Plemmons notes. In fact, farming and therapy are so interlinked that the counselling staff and their families live on the farms too, in homes located near the residence halls.

“Farming is such a structured thing, and that’s what they’ve really lost,” Plemmons says of First Step’s clients. “They lose their family; they lose their jobs. They need the counseling, but they also need the structure of going to work again.”

The farms themselves, both located up sparely populated, serpentine roads and surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges, offer a chance at serenity, Plemmons adds. The program requires a minimum stay of 90 days, but most residents will stay for six months to a year — long enough to see seeds they’ve planted grow and be harvested, Plemmons notes.

“When I was a kid, everybody would have spent some time on a farm — even if you were just visiting your uncle or your grandfather,” Plemmons says. “Now, that’s not the case. A lot of the people we get are from cities, and they’ve never been around any farming. But then they get out there, and they feel the sun and the fresh air and hear the birds singing — it’s like a new beginning.”

The program is also about relearning social responsibility. Participants earn a wage for their work and pay for their room and board. They do chores in their living quarters, make their own meals with the help of resident chefs and go to work every morning either at the farms or at the retail store. “They’ve learned to take pride in what they’re doing, but also to take fiscal responsibility and gain fiscal security,” notes women’s facility supervisor and counselor Amy Kasdorf. “It feels good to have that sense of accomplishment returned to you.”

All the residents of First Step have already been through their initial treatment and are referred to the farm by licensed substance abuse facilities, Kasdorf adds. This is a place to come once you’re ready to move past the addiction and transition back into the world. “You hear sometimes in recovery the phrase, ‘Do you need it or do you want it?’” Kasdorf says. “We’re looking for people who want it.”

"It’s a beautiful thing to watch these folks come in pretty beaten and battered and then heal up," says Amy Kasdorf. "There’s a sense of serenity that here’s and that’s something they’ve lost.”
“It’s a beautiful thing to watch these folks come in pretty beaten and battered and then heal up,” says Amy Kasdorf. “There’s a sense of serenity that’s here, and that’s something they’ve lost.” Photo by George Etheredge

Central to that theme of transition is First Step’s belief that residents have to move out of their own isolation, says men’s program director Craig White. That’s a key idea, White explains, because the connection to others is one of the primary things lost in addiction, as ties to jobs, friends and families are often damaged or severed.

At First Step, that means building relationships with fellow residents through shared effort, but also creating ties to the greater community. Community members interact with residents both at the retail store and at an annual pig picking held at the men’s farm every fall. Candler residents will drop by the greenhouses to purchase flowers or follow the tractor as it comes in from the fields with fresh produce. Some even pick up residents to take them to church on Sunday. Though the farms are populated by addicts in recovery, there’s never been a sense of apprehension or suspicion from the community, White says.

“The phone rings all day with people who want to engage with us,” White notes. “Obviously, the community needed us too. Just about everyone has had someone in their family who has some kind of problem with addiction.”

Farming at First Step is in full-swing 11 months of the year, with January’s cold weather forcing one month of farming downtime that is spent in additional counseling. The farms produce around 3 million plants each year, White notes, and it’s work the residents are eager to engage in. “There’s such a strong work ethic in the Southern Appalachians,” White says. “Many of these guys have been unemployed for years due to their addiction, and when they get here, they’re ready to work.”

The program also coordinates with Goodwill, A-B Tech and the N.C. Division of Vocational Rehabilitation to offer residents vocational training, GED completion programs and financial assistance to attend school. The men’s facility has a certified kitchen where residents can obtain ServSafe certification and a licensed vehicle repair shop where they can learn mechanical skills. It’s all designed to facilitate the transition off the farm and into independence and recovery, White says.

"I didn't want to leave, so I never left," says Richard Williams. Williams came to First Step after decades of substance abuse. Today he maintains the farms equipment and some fun side projects.
“I didn’t want to leave, so I never left,” says Richard Williams. Williams came to First Step after decades of substance abuse. Today he maintains the farms’ equipment and some fun side projects. Photo by George Etheredge

Then again, some people, like Richard Williams, come to the farm and never want to leave — though Williams says that was a surprise even to himself. “My dad’s people were farmers, so I knew, or thought I knew, that I hated farming,” he says.

When Williams came to First Step in 2005, he was battling a decadeslong addiction that included alcohol, pills and heroin. He had tried rehab “15 to 20 times,” but nothing stuck. He realized he needed a long-term program and came to the farm expecting to work with “cattle and horses and stuff like that.” But soon after arriving, Williams found that he could fulfill one of his own passions — and save the program some money — by servicing the farm’s equipment in the men’s facility shop.

Today, Williams still runs that shop as a full-time employee of First Step, training residents as they work on equipment belonging to First Step or neighboring farmers. The shop also offers state safety inspections for its neighbors, most of whom are “widows and retired folks” who like to come to the farm to visit with the residents, Williams says. Downtime is spent working on Williams’ collection of miscellaneous projects that sit around the shop — an old motorcycle, a vintage muscle car and even a boat.

“I didn’t want to leave, so I never left,” Williams says with a laugh. “You come to this place pretty beat up, on the verge of death really. But when a place saves your life, you can’t praise it enough — and I know, I know, this place saved my life.”

This story is part of a series of articles looking at issues affecting farmers in minority or otherwise marginalized communities in WNC. Xpress will continue exploring this topic throughout the growing season.


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15 thoughts on “Harvesting serenity: First Step Farms uses agriculture to overcome addiction

  1. Dawn Fields

    i was a resident at First Step Women’s Farm in early 2011. Although I was not the model resident, constantly challenging authority and still angry and self willed during that time, I can look back and still see my time there as the turning point in my life. It was the farm that gave me the opportunity to understand who I was apart from all the negative influences I had always used to validate my existence. I learned I was lovable and functional and funny and smart and compassionate..all without drugs. The women I met there helped show me how to accept myself for who I am. The simple daily routines and the safe, isolated, distraction free environment was the ideal place to heal after years of abusing ourselves and being abused by others. I can’t say enough great things about FSF. Unfortunately I was asked to leave due to my refusal to take the rules seriously. Part of my addictive behavior was this incessant need to always buck the system. See how much I could get away with. And even though I was clean, I was engaging in very unhealthy behavior that was detrimental to the atmosphere of recovery at times. It has been my biggest regret since being in recovery. I do feel it is wrong to ban residents permanently (meaning they can never come back–even after a certain period of time) if they are discharged due to disciplinary reasons. That, to me, seems unrealistic considering the clientele in fact are ADDICTS in early recovery, struggling with learning new coping mechanisms apart from drugs and alcohol. It seems probable, even likely they will act out in one way or another.

    • Doreen

      Thank you for creating such an amazing place!! Also, thank you for the ‘Good mornin, Sunshine!’ – it made me cry…. I haven’t heard that in so long, I really ‘needed’ it and I also have ‘wanted’ to hear those words again. You’ve opened my heart and soul again…

    • Sarah

      Dawn, I came in right as you had left… remember all the other girls talking about you! I had challenges during my time at the farm but over all I remember it as a very special time for me where I truly learned and had the time to connect with my higher power. I didn’t stay sober after I left but that had nothing to do with the farm, I learned a lot there, and I am sober today, so that’s what counts. There are so many days when I wish I could get away and go back to that peace and protection from the rest of the world.

    • Dawn Fields

      There is a website online. Just google First Step Farm NC in Candler, NC and it should come up. I can tell you what I know. It’s a long term residential program. Meaning you have to commit to a minimum of at least 90 days. You can stay up to a year. There are a few requirements; although some may have changed since I was there in 2011. Residents have to be physically able to work without limitations. They don’t accept court mandated treatment requests or involuntary commitments. Residents must want to be there. That was one of my favorite parts of being there. Being around other women who were eager to recover. In active addiction, we don’t trust anyone and abuse ourselves and others. At the farm, there was such a common brokenness that the women bonded over…we learned to trust each other and form friendships and heal and work through some core issues that had kept us sick for years. Sure, many of us relapsed since and returned several times to recovery before it stuck…but for me, the experience there was what it took to make a decision about my life. For the better. I would recommend to anyone interested in going to call and be persistent. Chase your recovery like you’ve chased your drug of choice. That’s what it takes. It works!

  2. First Step Farm is a blessing! It is a true therapeutic community (and not the “tear you to shreds before piecing you back together”-type.) We are so lucky to have FSF in our community and to have Craig and Amy guiding the way. So many people desperately WANT recovery but need more than a 14-21 day stint in rehab to get it. I only wish we had about 4 or 5 more First Step Farms in our region and that FSF never had a waitlist. One can dream! (When I win the lotto I will copy this concept and build 2nd Step Llama Farm.)

  3. Nick

    First step farmed saved my life. They also assisted me in getting my commercial drivers license. I’ve been clean amd driving a truck ever since. Class of 2014 lol

  4. Barbara Aycock

    My daughter Eleanor Dorman worked at First Step Farm in 2004. It was a beautiful place to be and a beautiful place to develop the tools she was learning in recovery. Celebrating Mother’s Day with my daughter and son at the farm was such a precious time for me. I will always be grateful for the work, spiritual and physical, that Eleanor did at First Step and the support and guidance of Craig White and staff.

  5. A. L. Smith

    Sad to say, this program failed our family. My husband was there for a year and has not maintained sobriety and torn our family apart. Epic fail for us.

    • Dawn Fields

      Mr. or Mrs. Smith,
      I don’t represent FSF in any way. I can only speak from my own experience and knowledge. I empathize with your situation and understand the toll addiction takes on families. I came from an alcoholic home and then brought all kinds of chaos and pain to my family through my own addiction.
      That being said, I’ve learned that every relapse, every setback and every “bottom” I hit brought me closer to the point of surrender- where I would finally say ” Enough. Help me”. I already realized that until I reached that point, no program or 12 step meeting or prayer or holy water or anointed oil , not even First Step Farm could fix me. I had to first be willing to surrender to the program. Surrender my will. Instead of trying to do it my way. Every time I relapsed, it was because I alone chose to pick up that first drug or drink. It wasn’t because the program stopped working. I am responsible for my recovery.

    • Ric

      A.L. Smith, Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average……This means the program did not fail your family, your husband possibly has deeper mental issues that require a more in-depth study as to why he can’t, or won’t stay sober. The families of addicts and alcoholics suffer far more than the user, they lash out wanting to blame everything the user does on the programs, the people around them and everything else imaginable, they don’t want to accept the fact that the user is the problem in most cases. Men and women go to the First Step Farm for many reasons, some to simply get back in the graces of their spouse, or to get to see their children again, or to keep from going to jail. But most go the the FSF because they are actually sincere about living out their lives without the use of drugs and/or alcohol. I hope your husband gets the help he needs, but it’s obvious that he requires more help than a 12 step program. There is no cure for addiction, only a daily reprieve, but the person has got to want it. Good luck and God bless.

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