Local Farming Employs Adults with Special Needs and Autism

Local Farming Employs Adults with Special Needs and Autism

Big brother started program that now supplies lettuce to George Mason University and the Springfield Country Club.

Zach and brother Nic at the garden trailer.

Zach and brother Nic at the garden trailer.


Zach Zepf in the trailer-garden.

What started out as a backyard vegetable garden in Springfield has grown into a gift to an autistic man and his family, who are now the proprietors of Zeponic Farms, a hydroponic farming operation located in Woodbridge.

“My brother works here six days a week; we wanted something purposeful,” said Zach Zepf, the founding partner of Zeponic Farms LLC, who has created a place where his brother Nic could benefit mentally and emotionally.

Each week, 600 lettuce plants are harvested at Zeponic and sent to restaurants at George Mason University and the Springfield Country Club to be used in their salads. The farming skills and knowledge gained for Nic Zepf and the rest of the disabled and autistic staff is irreplaceable.

Unemployment for the Autism population is 80-90 percent, and the jobs available are often meaningless and isolated. Through the years, Zach and Nic Zepf grew up together, and Zach knew the time for jobs and adulthood was coming. There was a neighbor in Springfield with a big yard, and the gardening idea blossomed from there.

“We started in our neighbor’s backyard growing produce for community and family,” he said. “From seed to harvest my brother Nic was able to see the purpose of farming, it was really a great mechanism for him,” Zach said.

Through research, they saw the trailer aspect of this farming in use somewhere else and purchased one, outfitting it with grow lights, temperature regulators and more, and then found a business in Prince William County that would let them put it behind their building. Inside the trailer, there are between 2,500-4,000 plants growing in a cold environment because lettuce is predominantly a spring crop and grows better in cooler environments. Sterility is important too inside the trailer, so off go the shoes and on go the purple “Crocs,” that are disinfected.

The crop schedule is staggered so each week there is always lettuce ready to be delivered to the school or country club. Zach Zepf is looking to expand to a spot in Fairfax County, and he’s talking to the Workhouse Arts Center or the New Hope Church in Lorton.

Lettuce is Served

At George Mason University, Zach Zepf is working with the Mason Learning into Future Environments (LIFE) Program which is part of the College of Education and Human Development and its Division of Special Education and disAbility Research. This is a post-secondary program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who desire a university experience in a supportive academic environment, according to GMU. Once harvested, the lettuce is sold to the food service company Sodexo and served to Mason students in the Southside dining hall.

At Mason, locally produced fresh foods are gaining popularity, so the students consume an average of 400 heads of lettuce a week, GMU said. GMU has a similar partnership with the “President’s Park,” greenhouse on campus that supplies other greens and herbs to one of their dining halls. “We are proud to source locally-grown lettuces year-round for our resident dining customers,” said Caitlin Lundquist, the GMU Sustainability Coordinator.

Over at the Springfield Country Club, the idea of using locally grown lettuce by the farmers at Zeponic appealed to this local establishment. Chef Francesco Ughetto said the Zeponic lettuce is mixed with other greens as a “component of our salad.” The finished product is a hit on their menu, and they are happy to support the farmers at Zeponic, “That’s a great idea,” said Ughetto.

In mid-October, Zach Zepf spoke on the topic “Who Grows Your Food?” at Supervisor John Cook’s (R-Braddock) function in Burke.