Harvest Acres Farm works with NE Tech for Master's Course

RICHMOND – Thirty-five years ago, John and Cynthia Duncan opened a small farm stand on Kingstown Road in Richmond. They were three years into their marriage and optimistic about the future. 

The Duncans went on to have children, and their small enterprise of fruit and berries, vegetables and trees proved so successful, they opened a much larger farm establishment across the street.

Then, the day after Christmas of 2005, the unthinkable happened. John and Cynthia’s 14-year-old daughter Cassandra committed suicide. A tenth-grader at Chariho High School, and a member of the National Honor Society, the teen had provided her parents with no clues about the demons tormenting her mind. It was during the aftermath of this tragedy that, Cynthia says, “We realized what a mess the mental health system is.”

In their daughter’s memory, the Duncans established The Rainbow Fund, all proceeds of which are donated to the Rhode Island National Alliance on Mental Illness. The funds support “Inside Mental Illness”, a free interactive teaching program for high school students which demonstrates how our society can see positive change by reducing the stigma attached to mental illness. Delivered by people actually living with such afflictions, it shows that hope and recovery are possible.

A year and a half ago, the Duncans decided to carry that hope even further. 

“We turned our farm into a non-profit agency,” Cynthia says, “after I shared my vision with Mary Brinson from New England Tech. They have an occupational therapy program there that is phenomenal.”

The Duncan’s farm, Harvest Acres, is now attached to New England Tech’s master’s program with students completing their field work at the farm, working alongside people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. By providing activities and skills in a holistic setting, the farm allows members to develop better health and well-being in a healing and caring environment. 

“This is our second eight-week session,” Cynthia says. “We have nine members working here. Some are brought by their families, some are from the WARM shelter. We all work together but everyone deals with different things so they each get to pick what they want to work on. Some help with organizing the store, others paint pots or help transplant or order stock. Some make wooden crafts or furniture. We are going to start working in the fields pretty soon.”

Duncan has learned how difficult it is for those with mental illness just to get through each day, especially when the stigma often makes it impossible for an individual to learn new skills or gain employment. 

“It’s great to build up their confidence so they will be able to go back out into the community again,” Cynthia says. “We are modeling our program after the Gould Farm in Massachusetts. They have forty members and they’re incredible.”

The diagnosis of members are “a wide variety of everything,” Cynthia says. “Each one is under the care of a physician so we know everyone is taken care of.”

The changes in their demeanors are evident during their time there, she asserts, as they come to feel they have the opportunity to reach their full potentials, out of the dark shadow of stigma.

Driving past, one could hardly guess all that Harvest Acres offers, not only in terms of hope but in terms of stock. A country, garden-themed, fairytale general store of delight doesn’t even sum the place up. Framed nature prints and rustic signs adorn the walls while Australian soaps, pottery, candles, dishware, mugs, shirts, and baskets adorn the shelves. Wind chimes dangle from the ceiling while racks of tote bags and greeting cards beckon from the ends of aisles. 

An impressive fairy village ignites the imagination with all of its tiny implements available for sale. Baskets, watering cans, seeds, potting soil and trellises are stocked for all your gardening needs. And then there’s the candy counter; glass canisters of jelly beans in flavors such as maple syrup and buttered popcorn; bottles of maple syrup and jars of wildflower honey; coolers filled with cold old-fashioned black cherry soda. 

And this is all before you go out to the greenhouse where a blooming array of color awaits in the form hanging baskets and pots of annuals, perennials and succulents, vegetable plants and herbs. And, of course, tucked in all corners of the establishment, are rainbows.

“My husband and I have been through so much,” Cynthia says. “But I’ve realized that no matter what you’ve been through, you have to be open to what’s around the corner. I couldn’t be happier. God and Cassie are on my shoulder.”

Harvest Acres is located at 425 Kingstown Road and is now open for the season. 

Cameron Pearson