Reaping the Benefits of Disability Inclusion in the Agriculture Industry: the Fruits of Employment Initiative
The seeds for the Fruits of Employment (FoE) initiative were first sown in 2009, when TIAA was seeking new and innovative strategies for providing its farmland investments with a skilled, safety-conscious and stable workforce.
Recognizing the potential of an untapped talent pool to help agriculture industry employers thrive and grow, TIAA forged a partnership to encourage and facilitate the recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities to work on custom-farmed properties. Under the arrangement, disability experts provide training to farm managers on how to source, hire, train and support persons with disabilities to perform many of the general tasks required to maintain the farm. Heather Davis, a senior managing director at TIAA, laid the groundwork for the initiative after recognizing her son, who has autism, would be an ideal fit for some of the jobs that needed filling across the company’s agriculture portfolio.
Since its inception at one of TIAA’s apple properties in Washington State, FoE has grown to include six locations and more than 30 full-time workers. This initiative provides competitive, integrated employment to individuals with disabilities in an environment where there have traditionally been limited work opportunities available, all while meeting the businesses’ unique workforce needs.
Farm managers report a high level of satisfaction with FoE, and others in the industry are now looking to the initiative as a model of best practices for disability inclusion in the agricultural sector. “FoE is a practical and efficient initiative designed to help meet a business need within our properties while simultaneously delivering a social benefit. It’s also a perfect example of our commitment to invest responsibly—not just in the agricultural space but across all asset classes,” says Davis.
All applicants are pre-screened for job compatibility prior to being hired and must be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. Workers are then trained to perform all standard tasks on the properties, including pruning, suckering, wire moving, leaf pulling, harvesting and hoeing. They are also afforded opportunities to learn other skills, such as tractor driving and irrigation maintenance, enabling them to further cultivate careers in the agriculture industry.
Workers with disabilities are paid wages commensurate with fellow employees without disabilities, and some have become skilled enough to earn even more when compensated on a per-unit rate. For some workers, this job is the first time they are expected to perform at the same level as individuals without disabilities, and the employers are finding that they rise to those expectations. In some cases, the work skills that farm crew members learn at the farm properties enable them to progress to other job opportunities and career paths, both within and outside the agricultural field.
Engaging experienced disability consultants from the Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE), who provide job coaching and other supports, has been key to the success of FoE. APSE was founded in 1988 with the goal of promoting, establishing and expanding employment opportunities for all people through local, regional and national networks, and FoE is a great example of its work. The organization assisted TIAA in engaging with a team of disability inclusion experts to create a strategy and support implementation of FoE.
These FoE consultants, including Bill Emmett, Deb Russell, Cathy Sacco, Cyndi O’Bannon, and James Emmett: James Emmett and Company; an inclusion-focused consulting firm that supports the initiative. Together, they and TIAA-owned farm managers engage with the local disability services community and work to strengthen the farms’ hiring and ongoing employment practices. With the consultants’ help, TIAA and its farm managers have built partnerships with both publicly and privately supported employment agencies to source qualified candidates and support them after hiring.
APSE’s former Executive Director, Allison Wohl, believes that FoE, which is currently thriving at six different agricultural sites, is a model initiative for growing even more employment opportunities for people with a range of disabilities. The initiative “provides structure for the farmers, who are understanding that people with disabilities are a really valuable talent pool, and that supported employment is beneficial for employers.”
Widespread outreach has increased awareness of the initiative and established the business case for hiring people with disabilities in agriculture, especially as the industry’s labor market is tightening. The farm managers engaged in the initiative report that hiring these employees has reaped bottom line benefits, as they more easily stay on schedule to complete the myriad tasks required to maintain a productive farm. And, the development of paid internships has both benefited transition-age students and supported TIAA’s long-range goal of a skilled, stable workforce.
“By establishing internships at specific sites, developing new pipelines of talent through disability-related agencies, networks, and schools, and partnering with nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups dedicated to serving populations with disabilities, FoE’s story is being spread across the country,” said Davis.