At Beacon Farms, the workday starts with a 12-step meeting.
A small group musters under the timber frame of the makeshift break room to reaffirm their commitment to staying sober.
Then they get to work, operating the backhoes that sculpt the ever-changing landscape, running the reverse osmosis irrigation system or tending the unusual variety of crops at this self-styled “idea farm.”
The 34-acre property in Frank Sound is growing into a fully functioning agricultural operation that aims eventually to produce everything from livestock feed and coconut oil to Cayman’s first homegrown, premium cigar.
But its real business is recovery.
The mission, says Bud Volinsky, the farm’s executive director, is not just to tend fruit trees and grow crops but to mend families and grow good citizens.
A spin-off of the Bridge Foundation halfway house for recovering addicts and reformed prisoners in West Bay, it provides a “second phase” of support for those who struggle to find work and safe housing.
Several of the workers live on-site, in a renovated cottage once owned by the late Edna Moyle, former Speaker of the House, while others are bused in daily from halfway houses in West Bay or from private homes.
All of them share a checkered past, pockmarked by periods of drug and alcohol abuse or spells in prison. Of the 11 current workers at the farm, nine celebrated sobriety “birthdays” in the last year.
Mr. Volinsky, a gravelly voiced, snowy-bearded man affectionately known as Mr. Bud, says the farm’s aim is to end the “revolving door effect” that often sees reformed addicts fall back into bad habits. Even after a stint at a halfway house, he said, some struggle to find work because of criminal records and soon find themselves back among the same friends, the same bad influences and soon enough, back before the courts.
The farm seeks to be a “ground zero” for sustained recovery, offering steady employment, a supportive, drug-free environment, and skills training to help find work in the private sector.
Among the success stories, one case stands out.
The farm’s foreman, a reformed career criminal with 100 previous convictions and referred to the program through the Drug Court, has now been sober for more than two years.
He took a day off work last year to attend his child’s first day at school and was able to save enough money to buy her a bicycle for Christmas.
“We are dealing with the lost generation here,” Mr. Volinsky said.
“We are taking the mothers and fathers of the children that have been abandoned for a while and bringing them back together so they can do their share in raising the children. We are mending families.”
The ‘idea farm’
The farm itself is a hive of innovation. Unusual crops like mangel – a type of livestock feed – vanilla and chocolate compete for space with more common Cayman staples like Scotch bonnet peppers.
A composting facility is planned and a lab for processing coconut products is currently in the final stages of the regulatory approval process.
They are also experimenting with growing tobacco, with the aim of providing the ingredients for a new cigar business, affiliated with the farm. A master cigar roller has been brought in from Cuba and is working with assistants from Beacon Farms program to produce premium cigars, currently using imported tobacco.
According to Derik Feher, director of marketing for Beacon Farms and also the spokesman for the Cayman Cigar Company, which has already opened a shop in Bodden Town and is marketing its cigars worldwide, said it will plow its profits back into the charity.
He believes the cigars could be an iconic Cayman product, like Tortuga Rum Cakes, that help provide a steady stream of income to keep the rehabilitation project going.
The principal benefactor for both the Bridge Foundation and Beacon Farms is the U.S.-based Haugh Family Charitable Foundation. The farm ultimately hopes to be self sustaining.
The aim of the enterprise, said Mr. Feher, is to fill niches in the market to support local agriculture and provide the farm’s workers with skills and good work habits that will enable them to seek more lucrative employment in the private sector.
At Beacon Farms they are paid above minimum wage and get health and pension benefits, but the charitable organization’s ultimate goal is to help them move on to wider society.
“We are trying to change perceptions that people in recovery are [a] bad choice for employment,” Mr. Feher said.
Mr. Volinsky says the benefits of that permeate throughout society by reducing recidivism and ultimately reducing crime.
Historically, of the 30 or so released prisoners that graduate from the Bridge Foundation halfway house every year, around half are able to stay drug and crime free in the longer term.
Beacon Farms seeks to improve that rate by providing another level of support for the other half.
“We are taking them a little bit further and giving them the foundation they need to sustain their clean time,” Mr. Volinsky said. “It takes time and it takes developing a work ethic, getting up at 5 a.m. to meet the van and coming out here and putting in a hard day’s work at the farm, earning a paycheck, and going to bed feeling good about yourself because you are too tired to do anything else. That is reducing the recidivism rate in a monumental way.”
The farm’s workers, who the Compass has agreed not to name, are equally positive about the impact of the project on their lives.
“At first I didn’t really like the idea of playing in the dirt but I came to find it is very therapeutic,” said one reformed addict working in the vegetable garden.
He said he had been clean for three years and was enjoying the small life benefits that most people take for granted – a steady paycheck, a bank account, a passport and the ability, occasionally, to travel. He believes the farm can help him maintain that.
“Being in this kind of atmosphere helped me maintain sobriety. Working around other people in the same situation, I wake up every day knowing I have to do something and that stops me from slipping back,” he added.