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Berry Good Farms enriches lives in more ways than one

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Berry Good Farms is a nontraditional farm with a nontraditional mission. Located at the North Florida School of Special Education (NFSSE) in Arlington, the farm is a micro-enterprise, teaching farm, culinary school and farmers market all wrapped into one private nonprofit. It was launched by parents with a shared vision: to provide a fuller life experience for children with intellectual differences. Thanks to those dedicated parents—one of whom donated 300 blueberry plants—and the culinary knowledge of Eat Your Yard’s Tim Armstrong (who has a child enrolled in the school), Berry Good Farms was born. Now, it’s a thriving space maintained by Berry Good Farms Mobile Market Manager and Farm Assistant Onya Schroeder.

As a profession, farming chose Schroeder. She left a career in healthcare in her early 30s, after deciding she needed a life change. It was an opportunity to indulge her “anti-establishment” streak and start living off the grid.

“I cook most of my meals,” she told Folio Weekly. “I don’t really go out to eat. I’ve learned to live simply ... I’ve learned what I want to spend my money on.”

Schroeder began by bartering for items like bread, produce and eggs. Then she heard local family farm Down to Earth had a work-share program, which meant she could work on the farm in exchange for produce.

“I wrote down [Down to Earth owner] Brian Lapinski and his phone number on a Folio,” she recalled, “and got in touch.”

She started volunteering on the farm and something clicked. Lapinski eventually hired her. As someone who loves the farming side of farming, Schroeder was initially unenthusiastic about selling the product.

“I originally got into [farming] because I wanted to grow my own food,” she explained. “I hated markets. I wanted something away from people. I wanted to be in the back, sweaty, dirty and gross! Playing with bugs and chickens.”

However, the experience of managing markets put her in a unique position when she started looking for another farm gig. Berry Good beckoned. She answered the call with what she called “a Berry Good résumé.”

She was hired initially as a part-time farm assistant, but the job entailed so much more. Turns out, working with NFSSE students is also part of Schroeder’s calling. The school serves kids with intellectual disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to autism to fetal alcohol syndrome. They learn social and job skills in an understanding environment. The garden is used by all grades.

The students are so positive and loving, according to Schroeder, that when they see her, they raise their arms for a hug and exclaim, “Ms. Onya!”

“They don’t know how weird I am,” she laughed. “They love me.”

Working with the students with intellectual differences has shifted her perspective and makes every day just a little softer.

“I was miserable all the time [in my 9-to-5 job],” she said. “I guess being of service has really helped me. Making other people feel good makes me feel better.”

As Berry Good Farms’ market operations blossomed, so did funding. Schroeder was promoted to full-time Mobile Market manager and farm assistant. She is responsible for two markets a week in four different locations. The Mobile Market, which brings fresh produce to various locations across Jacksonville, feeds into another of Schroeder’s advocacy goals.

“Food access is my other passion,” she said.”All people should be able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Berry Good Farms has multiple enterprises onsite that provide training opportunities and potential jobs for graduating students. Everything from working on the Berry Good Farm to staffing the Berry Good Mobile Market, Culinary School and Berry Good Food Truck. They even make dog treats—Barkin’ Biscuits—from farm-fresh ingredients. Berry Good Farms currently employs 12 grads.

“We have the most beautiful community,” Schroeder says. The sense of belonging she and all the students feel at the school is integral to Berry Good’s success. Northeast Florida’s culinary scene has embraced the school and its various enterprises. Berry Good Farms products are stocked on shelves at local stores like Grassroots Market and Native Sun. And you can see the Berry Good Mobile Market truck popping up everywhere. Culinary programs across the city source from the farm. We’re talking Robeks, Ajeen and Juice, Rue Saint-Marc, Bistro Aix and Café Nola.

On the farm, Schroeder is seeing the “first ripened mulberry and loquats this year.” It’s spring and it’s all about groundbreaking. Schroeder said the school is expanding, with plans for a “full cafeteria, a state-of-the-art physical therapy facility and stables for equine therapy.”

Even with the extra funding that has allowed the market to expand, there’s always more to be done, hence the Berry Good Farms Weekend Festival. The event features three dinner experiences. “Farm to Family, on April 5, stars Black Sheep’s Chef Waylon. “Farm to Tap,” April 6, features Chef Kenny Gilbert and quite a few local craft beers. “Dinner on the Farm,” on April 7, is presided over by Berry Good Farms’ own Chef Brett Swearingen and Chef Matthew Medure (of Matthew’s fame).

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