MONMOUTH — The idea of combining farming with program for homeless women is all about sowing seeds for David and Sarah Wolfe. And the sweetest fruit will not bloom on the vine, but in the transformed lives of the women who learn how to stand on their own two feet.
“The healing value of working the land, and seeing it produce an abundance, and seeing it provide for you, the symbiosis of that is beautiful,” David Wolfe said.
The Wolfes have spent the past several months making plans to convert Phoenix Farm on South Monmouth Road into transitional housing for homeless women. The women — six of whom would live at the farm with the Wolfes and their two children, ages 2 and 4, and four from off site — would be involved in every aspect of running a vegetable farm. Each woman would stay for about 12 months during which time they would develop a variety of skills, from growing food to accounting and running a business, David Wolfe said.
“The skills they learn on the farm can transfer easily to any future job,” Wolfe said.
The project combines several passions shared by the Wolfes, most notably the desire to help people while raising their children in a rural agricultural setting. Wolfe, 30, grew up in eastern Massachusetts and graduated in 2006 with a business management degree from Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. Wolfe spent four years working on the farm, handling just about every end of the business, and taught workforce training outside of Boston. He currently works for a low income housing progam in the Lewiston area.
Sarah Wolfe, 29, worked to find housing for homeless people in Boston. She now stays home with the couple’s children.
“We knew pretty early on that we wanted to use farming for good,” David Wolfe said.
The couple’s broad idea of using farming to help people came into focus after the family moved to Auburn in May 2012 and met Bill Legere. Legere, who heads the Auburn-based Foundation for Hope & Grace, was looking for someone to carry out an idea he had to open a farm-based program geared to helping the homeless.
“It kind of put meet on the bones of the hope my wife and I had without even knowing it,” Wolfe said. “This is (Legere’s) idea. I’m just the farmer.”
Armed with an idea, and the backing of the respected Foundation for Hope & Grace, the couple went in search of a farm. That search led them to Nancy Chandler’s Phoenix Farm. The Wolfes negotiated a lease of the 50-acre farm that would leave open the option for purchase. The Wolfes hope to move in at the end of the year.
The Wolfes are working with the town to secure a $100,000 community development block grant: workforce development grant. The grant would cover the first year. The second year of operation will require additional fundraising. David Wolfe expects the farm to be self-sustaining by the third year.
“I have to see it as a startup,” he said. “I have to see it from an entrepreneurial standpoint. I have nothing to fall back on.”
Town selectmen last week hosted a public hearing to air the grant request. Town Manager Curtis Lunt said if the Maine Office of Community Development approves the grant proposal there will be another public hearing and referendum vote sometime in the early part of the winter.
“It’s competitive, but I’m optimistic,” Lunt said.
Wolfe and Lunt said there were overall support for the program expressed during the public hearing.
“A lot of people think it’s a really good idea,” Wolfe said.
But, he said, there are concerns about competition from neighboring farms. Wolfe noted that he is not creating a new supply of produce but carrying on what Chandler has started. Wolfe said priority of the farm will be the people it helps rather than vegetables it grows. The idea is to run a program for homeless people in a farm setting rather than run a farm that helps the homeless.
“The proverbial pie is not one size,” Wolfe said. “It can expand. I’m not looking to steal anyone else’s slice.”
Wolfe said some at the meeting wondered if the women being served might come with challenges that would be difficult for the neighborhood to absorb. Wolfe responded by noting that his family will be living alongside the women and the safety of his wife and children are the priority. Wolfe also noted that the program will serve women who have already taken steps to remake their lives, such as completing substance abuse programs.
“This is an end-phase program,” Wolfe said. “They’re ready for independence but looking for a transitional stop.”
Wolfe plans to spend the next couple of months getting to know his neighbors, and other farmers in the town, and letting them get to know him. He said the idea of using farming to bring emotional healing is nothing new and Wolfe is anxious to tell others how his farm might have the same positive impact on the community similar programs have had in the past.
“We’re trying to bring them into a place where they are fully in control of their success or failure,” Wolfe said. “We’re just here to coach them in the right direction.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642