A growing business on the outskirts of Greenbrier County offers fresh produce and opportunities for those recovering from addiction.
Seven years after starting her side project, Fruits of Labor, Tammy Johnson had a choice: either stick with her day job as a USDA agricultural researcher or lean full-time into her burgeoning business. Johnson took the leap and decided to invest fully in the side hustle. Eleven years later and with no signs of the business slowing down, it’s clear the decision was the right one.
The Fruits of Labor farm spreads over 218 acres in the picturesque hills of Dawson, in Greenbrier County. Initially just a farm, the company began growing to incorporate wedding catering, cake decorating, and floral design. Then, in 2009, Johnson had an experience that changed the direction of the business entirely.
Something to Grow On
“I went to visit a lady at Alderson Prison,” she says. “I just saw a need for hope for the women that were coming into the visitation rooms.”
Johnson’s intuition reflects an increasingly apparent truth: It’s tough for those who’ve had any interaction with the prison system to find work. According to a Prison Policy Initiative study from 2018, the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people hovers around 30 percent—higher than the unemployment rate during the Great Depression.
Developing partnerships with local and statewide drug courts and recovery homes, Johnson is able to provide agricultural and culinary training for those recovering from addiction, free of charge. The training helps students hone important skill sets and, as Johnson points out, the culinary world is often more forgiving of past transgressions than other industries tend to be.
The training at Fruits of Labor is all-encompassing. Students take trips to the farm to witness and take part in the agricultural process. They learn the essential farm wisdom: what it means to plant, how quickly the crops grow, what to do in cases of insect damage. They learn how to use oyster mushroom totem poles and tap maple trees for their sap.
In the kitchen, students learn a wide range of skills: how to properly handle and efficiently prepare different kinds of produce, how to bake different kinds of bread, how to cook meat and decorate pastries. Fruits of Labor emphasizes skill and time management. “We can see them increase their speeds up to 75 percent,” Johnson says.
Students are also involved in serving the food, rounding out their experience to include every step from farm to table.
Doing Good by Eating Well
Fruits of Labor runs a café and bakery during the week in nearby Rainelle, in Greenbrier County. The homey establishment serves up a full menu of burgers and sandwiches, including the Hot Roast Turkey, Bacon, & Cheddar Dipping Sandwich, served on house-made bread with a parmesan and peppercorn ranch dipping sauce.
There are fresh-made salads, including the Fresh Mozzarella & Tomato Salad, a take on the classic Italian caprese, with fresh mozzarella and parmesan cheeses served atop grape and vine-ripened tomatoes, baby cucumbers, red onions, and herb-flavored croutons. It’s all served on Fruits of Labor’s house-made salad mix and drizzled with a balsamic dressing.
For something to warm your bones, try the soup of the day or Fruits of Labor’s Café Chili—which is made with ground beef, Italian sausage, kidney and pinto beans, organic tomatoes, bell peppers, celery, and onions. And don’t forget to pick a dessert from the cafe’s well-stocked bakery case.
Locals know sitting down to a sandwich or salad means more than just getting lunch, though. It represents an investment in those in recovery.
While helping people recovering from addiction through the power of food may have started as an act of faith, it is now backed up by data. Ninety percent of Fruits of Labor students who are part of drug court programs go on to graduate from those programs. In 2018, for the first time, Fruits of Labor graduated every single student in the program and helped them find a job. The organization brings in potential employers to meet with and interview students, further strengthening their chances of employment.
For Johnson, the healing power of the culinary arts goes well beyond finding a job or even personal improvement. “I think food naturally brings people together,” she says. “We have students that sometimes have had such a challenge with their recovery process. Sometimes there are broken relationships. And so when a student can go back home and prepare Christmas dinner for their family—when maybe they’ve never cooked for their family before, or maybe it’s been years—they can start to reconnect over something that is a natural kind of fellowship.
“It’s a great opportunity to knit people together.”
written by Emilie Shumway
photographed by Nikki Bowman