MIDDLE TOWNSHIP, N.J. - James Wright had never worked on a farm before. Now the former line cook from Philadelphia spends his days planting and plowing a verdant field at Bruised Reed Farm in Cape May County.

"It gives me something positive to do, something to keep me busy," he said. "It keeps me off the street."

Five days a week, Wright, 61, is among a dozen or so men transported from the Atlantic City Rescue Mission to the 31/2-acre agricultural project in Goshen, where produce is cultivated for use in the homeless shelter's kitchen.

It's about a 40-mile ride, but Wright and other mission clients say the tranquillity of Bruised Reed is a world away from the temptations and trauma they encounter on the streets.

"It is different out here," Wright said, wiping sweat from his forehead after spending the morning hoeing rows of potatoes and harvesting cabbage. "It's made me think about things I never thought about before, how things grow and change and mature."

John Wise, 46, another mission resident, agreed.

"It gets a little hot out here, but it gets me out of the city for the day, out here where the air is pure. I like it," Wise said.

Each year, the mission provides temporary shelter for about 3,000 people and serves more than 180,000 meals. It started "growing its own" three years ago to cut the cost of producing as many as 900 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners a day and the food baskets it provides the working poor who need help with their grocery bills.

The number of needy people has increased as a result of the faltering economy, while donations of fresh food from casinos, restaurants, and other local sources have decreased.

The mission wanted to continue to include high-quality produce in its meals and the 30 to 40 baskets it distributes daily from its pantry, said William Southrey, the organization's president and chief executive officer.

Menus featuring the fresh vegetables and fruits have been devised to provide greater nutrition, he said.

Last year, the project harvested about 30,000 pounds of tomatoes, corn, watermelon, squash, beans, and other produce grown from seeds and seedlings.

George Riess, a mission employee who supervises the farm operation, wants to build a greenhouse at Bruised Reed so the plantings can be raised from seeds to cut the cost of having to buy flats each spring.

Riess introduced a dozen chickens into the operation this summer, and the crew collects eggs nearly every day, he said. Donors have given the farm two tractors - a 1940s model and a newer John Deere - and a Bucks County church built a wooden structure there this summer so workers can take shelter from the heat and storms.

The rescue mission leases the plot from a woman who is disabled and can no longer operate Bruised Reed. She charges a modest fee, enough to cover her taxes and upkeep on the property, Southrey said.

Leased plots at two nearby farms were recently added to the mission's agricultural holdings, and a fourth location is planned in Atlantic County. The nonprofit, nondenominational group recently began seeking volunteers from outside the mission to join in the work.

The experience seems to change those who go to the garden.

On a recent hot day, two volunteers showed up to pull weeds and hoe - one whose age would certainly have excused him from rigorous labor and another whose peers probably would have preferred to spend the day at the beach.

"I just wanted to come out here and help," said Deb D'Anastasio, 21, of Ocean City, who spent her entire day off from her barista job working in the field. "It was so much more amazing than I ever thought it would be out here. It's been an awesome, genuine experience, and I plan to come back again."

Going to the farm had been on Bernie Grabowski's to-do list for a couple of years.

"I've been out here three or four weeks now," said Grabowski, 80, of Absecon. "I just feel the Lord sent me a message to come out here. I was called to come."

Southrey has been called an angel in Atlantic City for his 31 years of work at the rescue mission, where he has risen from director of operations. During his tenure, the mission's 47 employees - some paid, many volunteer - have instituted programs and projects to heal, educate, and train the people who come through the doors of the 250-bed Bacharach Boulevard facility.

The farm provides food for the soul as well as the stomach, Southrey said.

"The image of the garden is always important in the Scriptures," he said. "It is the circle of life, and it teaches as it nourishes."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.