Men with addictions find community, self-worth at Elgin recovery farm
Last summer, Pablo Quintero hit rock bottom.
The 29-year-old Puerto Rico native was living in California and trying to hold down a job in the hospitality industry. “I lived in Austin for eight years and was having a hard time with my addiction, but at the time, I wouldn’t have admitted anything was wrong,” he says.
He thought moving to California and working at a hotel instead of a bar might help him break the cycle, but instead, he found himself in an abusive relationship and couldn’t make it through a shift without drinking half a bottle of vodka or whiskey.
He lost his job and, over the summer, his ex-fiancé beat him up, putting him in the hospital with a broken arm, a fractured foot and a gash across the bridge of his nose.
“Only one of my friends was sober, so I called him up crying, bawling my eyes out saying I needed a change,” he says. “I was in the hospital, and I just lost it. I had to get out, so I packed all my things.”
He eventually landed at Ranch House Recovery outside Elgin, a peer-to-peer recovery program for men that includes an animal rescue operation and Simple Promise Farms, a nonprofit farm that raises money for addiction recovery scholarships.
It’s a rare combination of agricultural and 12-step work that Quintero credits with helping him find sobriety during this difficult year.
“I never had farming experience, but I knew that idle hands are the devil’s playground,” says Quintero, who is one of nearly 80 recovering people with addictions who have lived at the facility since it opened in late 2019. “I never thought I could work a whole day without alcohol, but now I’m the first one out there and the last to come back in.”
Finding a sense of self-worth
Ranch House Recovery is one of dozens of recovery residences in Central Texas, but it’s the only one with a fully functioning farm.
Unlike medically regulated, licensed treatment facilities, recovery centers like this one can’t receive state support or accept insurance, but they do offer help through the 12-step program, experiential therapies, including work on Simple Promise Farms, and the community that comes from sharing a roof with people who have been through addiction.
Founder Brandon Guinn is a former special education teacher whose son went to more than 20 treatment centers in his attempt to find long-term sobriety. During all those visits, Guinn started developing an idea of what an ideal recovery center might look like.
Over the next few years, he secured property near Elgin and built a ranch house on 10 acres with living quarters that can accommodate about a dozen residents. The facility opened at the end of 2019, and the farm started in early 2020.
“When I started this, I knew nothing about treatment. I didn’t know anything about farming or horses or animal rescue, but if you ask the right questions and get the right team, you can build it,” he says.
Guinn says he knew he couldn’t run the farm without hiring a farm manager who was also in recovery. That’s when he found Jim Dauster.
Dauster, a Connecticut native, had spent some time farming in Central America and Washington state before landing at Tecolote, the East Austin farm where he eventually became a co-manager. During that time, he volunteered at Community First and then helped run the nonprofit’s garden program, which served people who were coming out of homelessness. Many of those folks either struggled with addiction or were in recovery. Dauster wasn’t doing well himself.
“I didn’t navigate the stress of what was on my plate,” he says. Rather than heading, as he’d planned, to the mezcal farms of Mexico for his next adventure, he had to get sober.
During his first two years of sobriety, he started dreaming about a farm that could help people recovering from addiction, which was exactly Guinn had in mind. Dauster applied, and within weeks, they were breaking ground on Simple Promise.
It was a connection that led to the founding of what might be the first recovery-based farm in the state. There are only a handful of other farms like this in the country, including one in West Virginia and another in Tennessee.
“The first four steps, that’s just what farming is,” Dauster says: accepting what you cannot change (freezes, crop failures), believing in a higher power (nature, community), changing the things you can (attitudes, priorities, service work) and taking an inventory to know what role you play in a given relationship or situation.
“Addicts don’t have that core sense of worthiness,” he says, but the recovery process can help people struggling with addiction learn to see failures as learning opportunities. “As you fail, you realize it’s not a failure of you.” And with the shared goal of helping each other get clean and supporting people who are recently released from rehabs and moving into sober houses, “you end up getting changed by helping others change.”
'That sounds better than what I’m doing right now'
Simple Promise Farm has grown, donated and sold thousands of pounds of produce this year, and proceeds from the vegetable sales have paid for five scholarships, which help people after they’ve left the program pay for counseling services or rent at a sober living house.
They raised the first scholarship one Sunday afternoon last year at Highland Park Urban Farm, a small urban plot of vegetables that is also home to a seasonal farmstand run by Trisha Sutton and her partner, Comedor chef Philip Speer.
Ranch House alumni Kemar Ratchpaul stood next to a table piled high with bright yellow squash and Paleolithic-size mustard greens with his 11-year-old son, Marley, playing in the yard nearby. At the market, all of Simple Promise Farms’ vegetables and herbs didn't have prices listed. Customers were asked to pay what they wanted via Venmo, a contactless exchange that somehow brings the customers and the farm closer together.
Ratchpaul had just finished a 45-day stay at the recovery house and was volunteering at the produce stand.
Even though he had a five-year sobriety stint, Ratchpaul was arrested earlier this year for driving while intoxicated, and he knew he needed help. “I had been waiting for a change, and that change came,” Ratchpaul says of his time at Ranch House Recovery. “They told me about working with the animals and being on the farm, and I was game from day one. I said, ‘That sounds awesome. That sounds better than what I’m doing right now.’”
He says he learned so much during those six weeks about agriculture and working with tools and materials to build the infrastructure needed to run a farm. Working with the donkeys helped him get over his fear of large farm animals. “I would never feed animals out of my hand, but I work with them on the regular now.”
After leaving the home, Ratchpaul moved into a sober living house, where he is now an assistant manager. He continues to volunteer at Simple Promise Farms on Friday mornings to “help wherever is needed,” including recent work on a high-tunnel greenhouse. “That was some real work. Those blisters lasted for weeks.”
He usually goes home with some of the produce and has taken what he learned at Simple Promise Farm and applied it to a garden he’s building at his mom’s house.
“It was a cool experience to go outside and be able to see all of this amazing stuff growing,” he says. “I knew it would be best to give everything I had to this process. I’m honored to be part of something bigger than myself. I do a small piece and it fits exactly where it needs.”
Building unity through service work
Rogers Doyle, director of operations at the recovery house, has been through countless treatment centers himself, but he says he’s never seen a program like this.
Doyle struggled with addiction for more than 13 years before getting sober about a decade ago.
“This is the best I’ve ever seen it,” he says. “It’s a culmination of what we’ve seen that works and doesn’t work in this industry.”
A dozen residents at a time live at the recovery house for 30 to 120 days. Each day starts with meditation, and then residents work about three hours on the farm. They are in charge of taking care of a coop of chickens, a pair of donkeys and a handful of goats that also live on the property, and they rotate the cooking duties in teams of two, often using produce grown from the farm outside the house.
The rest of their day is spent doing recovery work, meeting in small groups and talking through their issues with sponsors and outside professionals. They spend Sundays doing service work in the community, such as helping an older resident with yardwork or a rural neighbor build a fence.
Two of the 12 residential spots are reserved for people who can’t pay, and Doyle says he’s always trying to find ways to make the program as affordable as possible for people seeking sobriety. Families often don’t realize that everyone involved usually needs some kind of help related to the trauma of living with addiction or someone struggling with it, so he connects them with a network of licensed therapists.
In the months since the farm has officially been up and running, Doyle says the impact on residents has been profound.
“They start working harder on the farm and taking pride in selling crops at the market. Then somebody gets a scholarship for sober living and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I was part of that,’” Doyle says. “We don’t recover alone, and work like this builds that unity.”
Growing the farm
Less than a year after breaking ground, Simple Promise Farm has two-thirds of an acre in production. The farm isn’t selling any produce to the public right now as they ramp up the infrastructure to prepare for the spring season, but the residents recently planted 1,000 heads of lettuce for Comedor, one of several restaurants with which they’ve established a partnership.
Dauster says one of the most exciting things about the farm is working with like-minded chefs who want to support the recovery community. Simple Promise Farms sells a variety of produce and herbs to Comedor and donates boxes of food to Community First, Central Texas Food Bank and other treatment centers in the area.
He’s also been talking with local chefs about developing a line of hot sauces that would support people on their path to sobriety.
Each time Dauster talks about the farm and its mission with potential partners, he says it feels like he’s planting a seed for some future collaboration, in part because people in the hospitality industry are drawn to the cause.
“It’s not just recovery or food or farming but a specific way of being,” Dauster says. Abundance, collaboration, integrity. “You can’t not dive in and transform alongside the folks you serve. You just have to trust God’s plan. That’s where the magic happens.”
Guinn says that selling the produce and related food products is part of his long-term goal to do as much good as he can using the resources at hand.
“We can help 12 people at a time (at the recovery house), but my goal with the farm is to be able to sell half a million in produce and products,” he says. “How many people can we support through scholarships? That’s the question.”
Sharing the message with others
In early November, the scar on Quintero’s nose was still healing, but he wasn’t thinking about the scar or his ex or the life he left behind in California. He was focused on getting the last of the fall crops in the ground and harvesting the last of those summer squash.
“I was nervous about coming here as a queer person of color,” Quintero says. “I’m from a small town. I’ve seen it and heard it all. I know what that’s like to be different, but here, everyone accepted me with open arms. We all come from different walks of life, and we all struggle with addiction, with depression, with being lost. That brings us together, and no matter how different we are, no matter what you’re going through, you don’t have to go through it alone.”
This shared experience has led to finding a brotherhood Quintero didn’t know existed.
“I feel super grateful that God got me here,” Quintero says. “I didn’t think very highly about myself. I had a hard time finding my worth, but thanks to this place, I’ve learned that that’s not true. I am worthy and I do deserve good things. Instead of being angry at the people who put me through things, I pray for them.”
A few weeks after sharing his story from the front porch of the farm, he and another friend from the recovery center moved into a sober house, where they are continuing to strengthen their sobriety, one day at a time.
Having worked almost all of his adult life in the hospitality industry, Quintero is still trying to figure out what he’s going to do for work in the coming months, but he knows he has something unique to contribute wherever he goes.
The most important thing, however, is carrying this message of recovery to other people struggling with addiction, particularly other queer people of color. “I remember thinking it would be impossible to find help from someone who looked like me,” he says. “Now I hope to pass it forward.”
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