Humans of Hydroponics – Meet Wendie Blanchard
In 2007, after a successful tenure in public education, Wendie Blanchard made the life-changing decision to found Arthur and Friends, following her dream of growing fresh produce and creating employment opportunities for disabled adults, and in particular adults on the autism spectrum.
Her nephew Arthur who has Down Syndrome inspired her.
She knew she wanted to build a farm, but what kind?
The first step was putting her master’s in marketing to work, conducting a feasibility study where she compared soil-based, hydroponics, and extended season agriculture. The results convinced her that hydroponics was the way to go, and she hasn’t looked back. Starting with a grant, an AmHydro system, and a borrowed greenhouse, Wendie hired five adults with various disabilities.
The dream was coming to life.
Now, 15 years later, over 1,000 people have come through the Arthur and Friends program via the 22 greenhouse programs throughout the county. At Three Meadows Farm, in Bedminster, New Jersey, one of her newest programs they continue to offer a broad spectrum of science-based services and education to children, adolescents, and adults with autism. The Farm functions as a social enterprise by serving as both a learning site for students and a job site for adults, who may have otherwise been unemployed. Additionally, the farm’s profits help fund the Center for Career Advancement’s efforts.
Prior to founding the farm, Wendie had been a “life-long” gardener, but never had the opportunity to dabble in hydroponics – even though she had been aware of the technology since a trip to Disney World in the 90’s. An introduction to AmHydro was the catalyst that allowed her to begin building toward the greenhouse projects they have today.
“I read extensively and with the guidance of Eric and Michael Christian from AmHydro we expanded the business to include schools, community organizations, social service agencies and various organizations that serve the disability community.”
Things haven’t always been smooth sailing. Producing premium-quality greens, their main market in Bedminster has been high-end restaurants in the region. These restaurants were all hit hard by COVID pandemic, leaving the program with only their CSA and Farm Stand business to rely on. “We were panicking,” says Wendie. “With everything shut down, our adult learners and staff could not come to work. We had to close all but one of our greenhouses, running it with a skeleton crew of just two people.”
Thankfully, conditions are looking up again. Wendie has begun interviewing for a Head Grower, Facilities Manager and other key positions. And she hasn’t lost her passion for Hydroponics.
When asked what her favorite part of the process is, she responds:
“Everything! I love it in January, when the temperature outdoors drops below zero and you are in a warm greenhouse that is lush with greens, it feels like springtime! I love it when people taste your produce and their eyes light up and they exclaim, “Wow! I never tasted lettuce or herbs this fresh and delicious.” And of course, I love watching our workers learn new skills and master growing. The pride they show in their work is simply the best.”
Wendie still credits the support she’s received from AmHydro as a pillar of their successes. “We all feel like they are partners, not just vendors. After 15 years, our systems are running like new, our produce is beautiful, and we know that when we have a problem, all we have to do is call.” She’s even put the equipment’s durability to the test, once accidentally backing over a dozen channels with her car. “Not my proudest moment!”
Arthur and Friends’ first AmHydro rep was Scott Kornberg, who suddenly passed away in 2015. He became a friend to Wendie, and their team still keeps his photo on their memory wall. The rest of the AmHydro team has continued to work with Wendie, and she still recommends them to anyone looking to get into Hydroponics, saying “Joe, Jenny, Eric, and all the work-family at AmHydro are knowledgeable, helpful, and responsive. Just what you want when you are starting out!”
What other advice would she share with someone who is just starting out?
“Read, and read more, visit every hydroponic farm you can, volunteer at the farms to learn as much as you can from experienced farmers, ask questions, and be fearless.”