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Shipping container farm employs adults with special needs

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Only the words “Zeponic Farms” and a leafy logo painted on a shipping container give a hint that tucked behind a nondescript Woodbridge office building is a farm hoping to change lives. Inside, shelves of budding greens sprout in containers dripping with condensation. Above, tanks hold different colored liquids with nutrients such as potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. 

Deeper into the shipping container, strings of blue and red lights cast a purple glow on the lettuce, kale and herbs sprouting from towers lining the walls. Blowing fans keep the small space chilly even in the summer, said Zach Zepf, a graduate of Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria and a founding partner of Zeponic Farms.


Growing up, Zach, 26, and his brother Nic, 23, who is autistic, tended the garden at their home. “It became a daily routine and I just noticed how much he liked it. It really became (Nic’s) responsibility,” said Zach. But farming was something that stayed in the backyard, until they learned about hydroponics — a type of farming where plants grow in water instead of soil. “We saw that they were making these (shipping container hydroponic farms) in Boston. So we flew out, we saw it, and we brought it here to Woodbridge” in April 2016, he said. “It took us a good year to really get it down to the point where our product was competitive.”

From planting to harvest, growing leafy greens at Zeponic Farms takes about seven to eight weeks. Once they’re big enough, the sprouts are transplanted to towers. Water and nutrients drip down the towers, feeding the roots of the plants, which are nestled in cotton. Lights are on 18 hours a day and they use no pesticides. Because they don’t rely on the seasons, plants grow year-round. 

When Zach, Nic or any employees enter the farm, they don a white lab coat and sandals to keep any germs or bugs out. When he’s not on the farm, Zach can access a video feed of the growing plants or adjust the room’s temperature or carbon dioxide levels — all through his phone. The whole system can make the farm seem like a mad science experiment, Zach admitted, but at its heart, Zeponic Farms does what famers have done for centuries: grow food.


“This is more efficient per square foot than an outdoor farm and our water usage is nothing in comparison,” said Zach. Twice a week, they deliver 500-600 heads of lettuce to the dining halls at George Mason University in Fairfax, Nic’s favorite part of the job. “We do love the fact that we provide local food,” said Zach. 

As much as he has come to love sustainable agriculture, starting Zeponic Farms was always about his brother. Currently, Zach is earning his master’s degree in occupational therapy to help people with special needs acquire skills they can use in the job market. But as he’s seen, all the skills in the world won’t make a difference if the jobs aren’t out there. 

“Knowing my brother, I really do think this population is so capable and so many of them are just sitting at home. I think I really realized there was a problem when he went to volunteer at a local library to stock their shelves and they just made it so difficult,” said Zach. “I think that’s what's great about hydroponics — it’s really the future of farming and if we can pair up a population in need with one of the fastest growing industries in the country, I think it could showcase what they could do.”

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Zach Zepf, founding partner of Zeponic Farms, holds a tower of lettuce. ZOEY MARAIST  | CATHOLIC HERALD

Zach, Nic and occasionally their parents run the farm with the help of Mason LIFE students, a post-secondary program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Adults from the program come twice a week, and Zach hopes that once they graduate, they’ll stay. 

“We’re looking for the ones who do well in this setting, and first and foremost, enjoy it,” he said. “We’re all about purpose-driven employment. The key to their success is all about support. They need to feel that this is an environment where they can come in and be trusted and treated fairly.”

The goal of Zeponic Farms, said Zach, is to produce fresh, local greens and to provide employment for adults with special needs. But the close quarters of the shipping container make it difficult for more than three or four people to work at a time. So he hopes to expand to another container or a warehouse. “In order for us to really meet our mission we have to grow,” he said. Fortunately, it’s what they do best. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018