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.”
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.”
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.
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.