By Joy Jordan
James Barnes carefully tends to plants at the Cape Abilities Farm in Dennis – and he even more carefully tends to the individuals supported by Cape Abilities’ programs.
The mission of Cape Abilities is to serve individuals with disabilities on Cape Cod by educating, counseling, and providing residential, therapeutic, social, and employment supports that empower them to achieve meaningful and valued roles in the community.
“Not every person’s meaningful role in the community is going to be the same,” says Barnes. “For some, living independently is the goal, or maybe learning to cook for themselves. A meaningful day for someone might be to make friends and have a social life outside of their home. Many of the 400+ individuals Cape Abilities is supporting just want to work and earn a paycheck. We offer our own community homes and shared living homes, provide day programming in two locations, and vocational supports in the community and in our own businesses − just to name a few things we’re doing to carry out the mission.”
Barnes, a 40 Under 40 Awards recipient in 2015, is a friendly, welcoming presence for both customers and his team at the farm on Route 6A in Dennis. And behind the scenes, he is working hard to ensure that the mission is Cape Abilities is supported and fostered.
With a title of Director of Farm Operations, it’s clear that Barnes’ role encompasses a wide range of activities, from management of the farm and retail shop to helping clients find positions in which they will be successful and productive.
“I am the Director of Cape Abilities Farm, a business run by Cape Abilities to accomplish three things: provide employment opportunities and training for the individuals we serve, promote awareness for our mission, and raise revenue for Cape Abilities programs. It’s the marriage of agriculture and disability services; it’s innovative, incredibly rewarding for all involved, and every day is an in-your-face challenge. There are hundreds of businesses that would be easier to run (and more profitable) than a farm and retail on Cape Cod, but I don’t think you could possibly replicate the breakthroughs we see on a daily basis with the workers at Cape Abilities Farm. When an individual with a disability comes to work at Cape Abilities Farm, we want them to get so good at their job that they can leave us, to go help another lucky employer in the community; that’s the whole point.”
For Barnes, this role is the culmination of his past experience, and the ideal combination of his skills, interests, and passions.
“I worked in a hydroponics attraction called ‘The Land’ at Disney World, as my first job after graduating from UMass Amherst,” Barnes says. “The Milligan family, who donated the Dennis Farm that would become Cape Abilities Farm, designed it to replicate The Land. I was able to hit the ground running. An education and career in agriculture and garden retail definitely landed me the job, but networking found me the opportunity. You just never know when a dinner party is going to completely change your life.”
It’s clear that Barnes finds the greatest satisfaction not simply in running a successful business but in truly touching the lives of those he supports.
“I regularly get thanked, for allowing someone the opportunity to work,” says Barnes. “It’s so powerful − so motivating to make the program better, the products better. If we can make Cape Abilities Farm an amazing experience and the destination for locally produced food and plants, more people will come shop with us, and we’ll be able to provide even more opportunities for individuals with disabilities.”
As someone who grew up on Cape Cod, Barnes resisted settling here for years.
“I have to say, the place has grown on me,” he notes. “I’d always thought that self-employment was the only way for me to be fulfilled by my work here. I know for me to be happy in my work, I need the freedom to innovate and take action. I also need to be around other innovators who have an action default. I was skeptical that I could start a successful business here − especially after failing twice − and I wasn’t meeting people like me.
“Then I came to Cape Abilities, and I started networking and meeting people with ideas and hustle, who cared about their community and made that caring part of how they do business. Sean Fitzpatrick at Cape Cloth, Joshua Schiffe at CBI Farm, Beth Patkoske at The Davenport Companies, Jason Montigel at Clean Slate Eatery, Fiona Jensen at Calmer Choice, and so many others − that network of people changed my view on living and working on Cape Cod. Now if we could just get more delivery food here ….”
As he continues to impact the region for the better, it’s clear that Barnes is making enormously positive contributions to the economy, community, and fabric of Cape Cod. And he gladly shares his passion and his gardening expertise, not only through Cape Abilities Farm, but also in his free time, one house at a time and one story at a time.
“I work on my friends’ gardens (by appointment and you’re cooking dinner),” says Barnes.
“I write about my experiences as a farmer and reluctant Cape Codder, and occasionally tell those stories on stage. I really am bad at living on Cape Cod − I don’t own a boat or fish or surf, but a sunset at Mayflower beach in Dennis is my favorite way to end the day.”