ARTHURDALE — Tucked away in Arthurdale, the Preston Workshop hums with activity almost every day of the week.
Preston County Workshop employees also do vital work throughout the community, such as custodial duties at the Interstate 68 Welcome Center and Camp Dawson, as well as lawn care and other jobs.
A group of community members, who saw the need for disabled folks to enter the workforce, founded the Preston County Workshop and incorporated it as a nonprofit in 1977. The Workshop answered the employment needs of those with disabilities, of their caretakers and of the community in general.
Since 1977 the Workshop has provided jobs, currently employing over 40 people, most with documented disabilities ranging from slow learners to those with blood sugar problems, according to Executive Director John Hyre.
“We are here to help anybody, so they can work and get a paycheck,” Hyre said, adding that the Workshop pays employees minimum wage and above.
Hyre said employees are trained in jobs that accommodate their abilities and interests, and each works with a lead person who ensures job quality and safety.
Jobs at the Workshop range from farming to factory work, with other options as well.
“There aren’t too many jobs out there that we can’t do,” Hyre said. Much of the available work is seasonal, but employees also manufacture pallets for several businesses, mining industry products for their Arthurdale neighbor Jennmar and air conditioner filters for Superior Fiber.
The Workshop has its own greenhouses, from which it operates a seedling and plant business every spring and summer.
In 2019 the Workshop added a commercial kitchen. Hyre said local farmers are welcome to use the kitchen, walk-in cooler and freezer, and other food storage facilities, or they can drop their produce off and Workshop employees will wash, process and preserve the food.
In addition to processing food, the Workshop grows it. A few years ago the Workshop added a farming component, partnering with Hickory Ridge Farm and two others in Preston County.
The Workshop buses employees to these farms, where they raise sweet corn, popcorn, green beans, dried beans, horticultural beans and a variety of squash, according to Preston County Workshop board of directors President Tom McConnell.
McConnell said to make a profit from food production, value-added products are a must. His Workshop farming endeavors started with growing squash for a wholesale buyer, but the harsh reality of a large portion of the crop not meeting grading standards guided him toward preserving the food.
While adding value to produce adds more work, it also adds more profit and easier access to local foods for many people in the community.
The Preston County Workshop partners with the Preston County Farmers Co-Op to supply Preston schools with local produce. With investment in equipment such as a corn husker, peelers, slicers and a bean harvester, the Workshop has been able to prepare locally grown vegetables for local children.
These items include corn “cobbets,” quick cooking horticultural beans and other veggies. “The kids go nuts for them,” Hyre said.
McConnell said they plan to expand production to supply more vegetables to the school system and to the public — which is also welcome to buy Workshop food products throughout the year. The kitchen and farms are Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) certified by the USDA.
For those who want to grow their own food, the Preston County Workshop greenhouses are slated to open on April 18 (pending further coronavirus shutdowns) for seedling sales.
Other Workshop jobs are ongoing and on an as-needed basis. The annual revenue for Workshop endeavors is $1.1 milion–$1.2 million, according to Hyre.
Most Workshop employees work 35-40 hours per week, and Hyre said they partner with other local businesses to find jobs outside the Workshop if employees so choose. He added some have been working at the Workshop for 20-30 years.
“They like it here; they feel comfortable here,” Hyre said.
Hyre said he and the Workshop board are always looking for expansion opportunities. This year they are looking in particular for more repetitive factory work for employees, who range in age from 16 to in their 80s.
By Aldona Bird