This guest blog post is by Zach Zepf. Founding partner at Zeponic Farms, Occupational Therapy student at Shenandoah University, and older brother of Nic Zepf, 23, who is on the autism spectrum. Nic has helped Zach find his purpose of advocating for autism inclusion in business.
My brother Nic has always exceeded expectations. Every time I think I know his ceiling, he explodes right through it. I have since learned that with the right support and patience…he can do just about anything. Nic has autism, and just like most adults with autism, there are very few opportunities for him to showcase his potential to society. Never-the-less, Nic has stayed very active in our community. He delivers newspapers, makes homemade sandwiches for the poor, distributes flyers for local businesses, and stuffs bulletins at our local church. These activities are great, but they really lack the consistency and structure that he needs in his daily schedule. Our family’s frustration came to an all-time high, when local libraries turned Nic away when he sought to stock shelves FOR FREE. What a joke, free labor was in low demand…
The most consistent daily activity Nic had, though seasonal, was gardening. Nic loved it, he would grow the food, pick the food, and our family would eat it. He really got to see the importance of what he was doing and I think he felt purpose in his role as our family’s farmer. Noticing his success and enjoyment, we found a way to transform his seasonal activity into a year round job using hydroponic farming. Nic’s family farmer role has since grown into a business, where he and other adults with autism tend to thousands of plants grown hydroponically inside a shipping container. It takes some time to adjust, but watching these adults in action is truly amazing. Nic is very task oriented, he comes in, does his work in military fashion, and then heads home to watch his favorite movie Balto. We have such a great balance of personalities; I don’t think there is a work environment more friendly. Smiles are everywhere, music is playing, sometimes dances break out; you never know what to expect at Zeponic Farms.
Mats is another one of our farmers. He is a part of the George Mason LIFE program, a post-secondary program which gives him support in an academic environment. When Mats was first introduced to the farm, he would plant 40 seeds, and the rest of the time he would just have fun. The goal for him was to enjoy his job, not just be productive. He would dance with some of our interns, try on different goggles, and investigate different gadgets around the farm. He even got to do an interview with the Washington Post. A couple weeks in, I introduced smooth jazz music….and he was hooked. Mats can now be found at our farm planting hundreds of seeds with smooth jazz blaring in the background, he never works without it. Mats thrives at our farm because of the social environment. He loves being around people and talking with them while he works. Mats loves discussing movies and sports, and always reminds me when I am having a bad hair day or need to shave.
Instead of bringing the produce to our family kitchen, deliveries of produce go to George Mason University for their dining halls. Our farmers get to see people their age in the process, eating the food that they grew at the farm. For us, purpose is everything; we want our farmers to understand the importance of their roles as local farmers. Everybody wants to wake up and know that there is a place for them in the world; my brother Nic and other adults with Autism are no different.