Farm serves the neurodivergent community

Orkestai Farm at Planting Fields grows crops and compassion


Planting Fields Arboretum may be one of the most popular parks and estates among visitors to Long Island, but what many people don’t know is that it also hosts a fully functioning farm. Orkestai Farm is a nonprofit charity that promotes organic farming as well as education and the arts, with a focus on educating members of the neurodivergent community.

The farm was founded in 2014 by Alethea Vasilas, Joshua Marcus and Erin Staub. Vasilas, its executive director, said she grew up working on her family’s farm, Orient Organics Farm, in Orient Point.

Vasilas explained that while she worked for her father on the farm, she also assisted a woman named Rachel who had autism spectrum disorder. Vasilas said she brought Rachel with her to the farm one day, “and she loved it.”

This prompted Rachel and her mother, Wendy, to start a nonprofit farm for neurodivergent education at Planting Fields in 2012. After a few years, the mother and daughter moved their nonprofit upstate, and Vasilas was brought in to be the manager of the farm they had created, and thus Orkestai Farm was born.

“It was really the impetus to continue what had been started,” Vasilas said. “We wanted to keep a community beacon for the neurodiverse community in our area.”

The name Orkestai is a variation on an ancient Greek word, orkheisthai, which roughly translates to “to dance or set in motion, to stir up, to raise.” That was how Vasilas said she and her cofounders envisioned the farm — “as a community collaboration that needs an orchestra of farmers who work together to grow healthy food and merry people.”

Orkestai grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, from zucchini and garlic to raspberries and okra, a portion of which is donated to local food banks and charities. Members of the neurodivergent community who work at the farm get to bring home a share of the crops they harvest each week, Ed Bortell, the father of two “organic growers” as the farmers are known, explained.

“What I really liked about this was that the kids were able to be out in the farm, getting their hands dirty, learning about all different types of vegetables and following their journey from seed to harvest,” Bortell said. “They get to see the entire life cycle, from seed to a plant to the dinner table.”

Bortell’s children, Eddie and Justine, have been organic growers at the farm for the past year and a half. They said that while they were initially a bit hesitant when they started working at Orkestai, the staff there helped them build their self-confidence, and they now see their work at the farm as one of the highlights of their week.

Because the farm is organic, there is an important reliance on work done with the hands and traditional farming implements, rather than tractors or more modern gadgets. The work that growers like Eddie and Justine do, such as transporting crops in wheelbarrows and seeding plants, is the lifeblood of the farm.

“I really like learning about the plants, and just being outside, and seeing what else I can do besides sitting in the house all day and getting outside,” Justine said. “You can smell the fresh air and all of the vegetables.”

The organic growers also have helpers, hired by their families, who are known as direct support people. Nina Renker, who supports two of the growers, emphasized the educational benefits of the work that aren’t on offer at a traditional school or center for the neurodivergent.

Renker said that being immersed in nature offers people with different sensory experiences a welcome change of pace, and can also make those who are agoraphobic more comfortable outside. The farm also offers them a community space where they can fit in and be themselves.

“First of all, I would say just being outside and being in nature is a benefit,” Renker said. “Most of all, it’s about being welcomed into a space where they don’t have to change anything about themselves to fit in.”

The farm works primarily with neurodivergent people who have aged out of high school programs. Orkestai also promote the arts and artistic expression, teaching students yoga and presenting a wide range of artistic performances throughout the year.

Joan Sommermeyer, the president of the facility’s board, said that it will host its Annual Harvest Moon Fall Festival, which features live music, professional cooking using the homegrown crops, and arts and crafts events, on Oct. 7, from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Sommermeyer, who has been on the board for the past five years, said that the festival is a great chance to promote the work the farm does throughout the year, and to interact with the larger community.

“It’s an opportunity for the community and our supporters to come together,” she said. “There’s always something there that will give a hands-on experience to people who share in the event.”