Shattered by a weak economy, rising energy costs and a continuous avalanche of inexpensive, imported roses from South America, Pinchbeck Rose Growers of Guilford, Conn., was forced to close its doors in 2008. For Tom Pinchbeck, the third-generation owner of the farm, it marked the end of an era.
Pinchbeck was the last standing wholesale grower of cut roses in New England, operating the largest greenhouse under one roof—150,000 square feet—in the United States.
But last year, the 80-year-old rose farm got a new lease on life, reopening its doors with a new mission that goes far beyond just growing fresh-cut, fragrant roses.
Today, the farm is the home of Roses for Autism, an innovative nonprofit that provides job training and employment opportunities for people on the autism spectrum. Roses for Autism’s main goal is to give its employees the necessary skills to maintain meaningful employment so they can carry those skills with them when they eventually move on to different agricultural or farming jobs.
Most of the employees on the farm have autism and are trained in every aspect of the commercial fresh-cut rose business: planting and caring for the roses in the greenhouse, grading the buds, creating bouquets on the assembly line, making deliveries, answering telephones and maintaining the Roses for Autism website.
“Our whole goal is to employ people with autism and create a mechanism and a network of other farms so people can go work there when they’re done here,” says Julie Hipp, who took on the role of director of Roses for Autism after previously running the Connecticut Autism Spectrum Resource Center for 12 years as board president. “Our whole goal is to prepare them to work in a typical work environment.”
And it’s not busy work. It’s a meaningful, real job whose end product graces homes, corporate events, restaurants and supermarkets, such as Whole Foods, in Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.
A sense of the scale of this operation: In September, Roses for Autism is expected to cut 500 dozen roses a week, says Lori Gregan, the retail operations manager at the farm. All told, the farm will harvest 1 million roses. In January, the farm also started growing lilies. Each week, employees plant 300 lily bulbs, and 14 weeks later, they’re ready to be harvested, Gregan says.
The program is a collaboration between Pinchbeck and his college friend Jim Lyman, a local agent who sells insurance to farmers and whose family owns the Connecticut landmark Lyman Orchards. Lyman’s concern about employment for his own autistic son, Eli, prompted him to contact Pinchbeck when he heard his farm was closing.
The idea came full circle when Hipp came on board and was able to secure funding for the project through the nonprofit Ability Beyond Disability.
Currently, Roses for Autism leases only 50,000 square feet of the existing 150,000 square feet of greenhouse space at the farm, and Pinchbeck himself has signed on as head rose grower for the nonprofit. They grow about 16 different varieties of roses and employ about 20 people, half of whom have autism.
Gregan likes to boast that once you get a whiff of their fresh-cut, locally grown roses, it’s difficult to go back to the bland-smelling, imported brands you find at supermarkets and roadside stands. Aside from being intensely fragrant, she says her roses live longer—between 2 and 3 weeks if you keep the water clean. And the buds open fully.
Once upon a time, fresh-cut rose growers like Pinchbeck dominated the landscape in New England. But like many domestic flower growers across the country, they were forced to close because they could not afford to keep up with foreign competition, mainly from South America.
Simply put: Roses can be grown more cheaply in places like Ecuador and Colombia, where land is plentiful and farms can grow large crops without the need of heated greenhouses.
“It’s cheaper to bring roses in from South America because you don’t pay heating costs there,” Gregan says. “Most of the roses you see in your grocery store or florist today come from South America.” She says those roses have bigger heads and the fragrant smell has been bred out of them in exchange for longer vase life and ease of being shipped long distances safely.
“My roses smell amazing,” she says.
Gregan says the work at Pinchbeck is just the beginning. Impressed by the Roses for Autism model, Ability Beyond Disability has since formed a sister organization called “Growing Possibilities” and hopes to expand the program to include different types of businesses and vocational training opportunities for people with autism.
“We’re the first child in the Growing Possibilities program and hopefully we can start more of these programs in different areas so that it can help other people,” Gregan says. “We want this to become a national model. We’re trying to set this up as a prototype so we can do maybe a printing business or a small restaurant. Nothing is impossible.”