GARRISON, N.Y. — It was shortly after 8 a.m. on a sun-drenched July day in this idyllic hamlet 50 miles north of Manhattan, and a hulk of a man named Venice Crafton was lumbering between beds of arugula, leaving outsize footprints in his wake.
Mr. Crafton is 6-foot-2 ½ inches, 241 pounds and missing his two front teeth, all of which might have made him seem menacing but for the wide-brimmed, slightly floppy straw hat on his head.
“Boy, if they could see me now in Brooklyn, they wouldn’t believe it,” said Mr. Crafton, who was raised in Brownsville. “This goes no further than this farm,” he added to the half-dozen co-workers around him.
The men responded with grins and low grunts. They were immersed in their work, tugging heads of lettuce from the soil, culling the leaves and rinsing the produce in a plastic pail filled with water.
“I’m not used to doing this stuff,” Mr. Crafton, 48, grumbled.
“You can’t tell with that hat,” came someone’s retort.
It was all in a day’s work at an unlikely flyspeck of a place: a two-acre organic vegetable farm bordered by a forest and gentle hills, where two dozen men were quietly fighting for their lives.
The farm is run by recovering addicts and alcoholics from New York City, men whose various addictions, and repeated relapses, have left them sickened and homeless. Called Renewal Farm, the patch of land boasts neat rows of vegetables and bright flowers, as well as two greenhouses fashioned out of thick sheets of plastic.
The men’s days are split into two very different parts. They tend the farm, lacing the air with locker-room banter and gentle ribbing. And then they exorcise their worries and voice their hopes at St. Christopher’s Inn, a hilltop rehabilitation center nearby where they sleep.
The men’s lives are shot through with such contrasts. They are urban, transplanted to the country. They have dark pasts, but they spend their days in bucolic surroundings. They come from the gritty streets, but they grow trendy produce, often for rarefied palates. In this patchwork existence, they do have one constant thread: the knowledge that they are teetering on the brink.
“It’s a last resort,” said one participant, James Fletcher, who is 58 but looks far older, his cheeks lined and eyes sunken by decades of heroin abuse.The transition to the farm can be unnerving.