When Joe Twiner ’18 decided to lay down roots, he did so — literally.
He’s the executive director of Peachtree Farm, a nonprofit, sustainable urban farm on the outskirts of his hometown of Atlanta that grows more than hydroponic tomatoes, produce and fruit trees. The seeds of hope and empowerment take root here for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including his 21-year-old sister, Quinn.
"My family began throwing around the idea of starting the farm when I was a senior at the University of Dayton, but in the last year it became more salient," he said. "The amount of services available for those with disabilities is slim, far between and often unsatisfactory. We’ve created a place where people can come, work and be part of a community.
"It’s more than a farm."
At first glance, the farm’s location in a technology park in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, seems an unusual choice. Dubbed Tech Park, the 500-acre development is fertile ground for start-ups and innovations, such as the first tele-operated e-scooter and a 1.5-mile test track for autonomous vehicles. It’s a place where imaginative ideas blossom, and the family saw it as just the spot for cultivating their dreams.
"We’re doing high-tech farming and providing meaningful jobs," Twiner said. "We believe we can build a sustainable future — and an accessible one — here."
The nearly 5-acre farm is taking root on land a real estate developer donated to the family for five years. It features a technologically sophisticated hydroponic greenhouse, raised beds for more than a dozen crops — from sweet potatoes to jalapeños — and plans for four more greenhouses, 15 independent living homes, a recreation center and a research facility that will house the operation’s office, warehouse and commercial kitchen. With an eye toward sustainability, the farm reuses all of its water from either the hydroponic system or rainwater collection.
On a hot, muggy summer afternoon, farmers Quinn Twiner and John Gross took a break from planting olive trees to talk about their favorite part of working the land.
"Working together as a team," Quinn Twiner said. "That’s my advice to John and everyone. It’s amazing (working with my brother). This farm is a project for everybody."
"It’s hard work," said Gross, who enjoys planting and watching the vegetables grow.
Along with two other farmers, Quinn and Gross spread mulch. They plant and water vegetables, blueberry bushes and peach trees. They also feed the chickens; sell produce at weekend roadside farm stands; and help the Twiner family raise the money they will need to buy the land and fund future development. Community members and local businesses have sponsored the purchase of tomato plants, raised vegetable beds and beekeeping boxes that local artists beautifully painted.
"We believe we can build a sustainable future — and an accessible one — here."
In its first year of operations, Peachtree Farm has attracted more than $200,000 in private support and in-kind contributions, with plans to launch a capital campaign in 2024. By 2026, the farm aims to employ more than 50 individuals with disabilities and house 45 in its independent living community. Unlike many small businesses, it has more applications than jobs it can fill.
Until offices are built, Twiner will con-tinue sharing space in Tech Park with his dad, Mike, a civil engineer who’s president of HydroPro Engineering and Construc-tion and past board chair for Georgia Special Olympics. His father, Twiner said, is the driving force behind the development of Peachtree Farm and a favorite with the farmers.
"Since the chickens are hard to tell apart, the farmers have named all of them Mike Twiner with the exception of a white one they call White Bulger," Twiner said with a laugh.
Turning serious, he said, "My dad likes to say there are three questions: 'What will my child do with her life? Where will she live? Who will take care of her when I’m older?' We want to make sure Quinn has a full life with friends, a job and a community.
"With our family’s experience, we saw a need and wanted to meet it in some small way."
Still, Twiner did not imagine running a farm. While a student at UD, he envisioned teaching high school religion. Upon receiving a bachelor’s degree in education, he moved to Boston and taught catechism classes at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help while he earned a master’s degree from Boston College in theological studies with a certificate in human rights and international justice. Throughout his college days, he focused some of his academic work on disability rights.
"I always wanted to do something that helped other people and build community ..."
"I always wanted to do something that helped other people and build community, whether that was in a classroom or for a nonprofit," he said. "Building community is how we engage with one another and attempt to create a better world. I learned that strongly at UD."
After grad school he worked for a year as a community outreach coordinator for the Labor Guild in Boston, but his heart re-mained in Atlanta with his close-knit family, especially Quinn.
"My sister has always been a guiding point in my life," he said. "She’s such a joy. While in Boston, I would call her several times a week, and she’d Facetime me. She’s probably the sibling I’ve always been the closest to."
Instead of creating lesson plans, Twiner now writes job plans with accessibility at their core. He teaches vocational skills, organizes community events, works with volunteers, raises private support and chronicles the farm’s progress on its social media channels and website.
And he harvests hydroponic tomatoes — lots of them. Once in full operation, the farm is projected to annually yield more than 28,000 pounds of tomatoes that taste as fresh in February as they do in August.
At UD, Twiner and his nine roommates lived in a rambling, three-story yellow house at 1903 Trinity. As members of a Marianist student community, they shared meals together — a practice Twiner has incorporated with his farmers. As they eat lunch together daily, they talk about their lives and dreams.
"Building community is being part of community," Twiner said. "When you build community, you build consciousness.