Farmer’s House helps developmentally disabled youth farm, work, play and grow
The greatest tree in the forest grows from just a tiny seed and this is an analogy that holds true for a Platte County program helping developmentally disabled youth.
It all started with a seed, or more specifically, the Seeds of Change program in 2010. That seed has grown into The Farmer’s House located at the former Vaughn Orchard location near Weston and from that seed the program continues to grow. Platte City residents Alan and Suzanne Zimmerman first met David and Peaches Cunningham, of Shawnee Mission, Kan., when their children were young and enrolled in the St. Luke’s therapeutic and developmental preschool, The Children’s Spot. Over the years, the couples lost track of one another, but the need to research future options for their children remained. “About seven years ago I started researching vocational options for individuals with developmental disabilities in Platte County, by looking at programs all over the country,” Suzanne Zimmerman said. “I was particularly interested in greenhouse and farm programs. At the same time, unbeknown to Alan and I, David and Peaches had been inspired by a trip to Red Barn Farm and they were doing the same thing. It was a complete coincidence (faith is important to us so we know it was not a coincidence) that I showed up at a parent meeting the Cunninghams were hosting about the future of our kids and they were talking about a concept called The Farmer’s House. We joined forces back in 2006 and have been moving forward ever since.” And it was at Weston’s Red Barn Farm that the program got its start. With participants from the Platte County R-3 School District’s functional classroom and the Platte County Board of Services day habilitation program, the first seeds were sown. “We were the blind leading the blind as far as gardening, but the students loved coming out to the garden and learned how to work together to get a job done,” Zimmerman said. “They used the produce they grew in their life skills classes and liked looking up and making recipes they found on the internet.” Just one year later, they approached every school district in the County, and soon students from West Platte and both Park Hill and Park Hill South were also tending the garden. Within another year, the owners Red Barn Farm, Steve and Cindy Frey, had leased space at Vaughn’s Orchard — which had closed due to the death of the orchard trees. The Freys asked the program to take over the farmer’s market at Vaughn’s and they jumped at the opportunity. “We took possession of the Vaughn’s space in January 2012 and after kicking out some wildlife and cleaning up a space that had sat in a corn field vacant for a couple of years, we set up the market and opened in April,” Zimmerman said. The market program works the same way as the garden program, with students from participating local school districts coming out each day of the week. They learn everything there is to learn about operating a small business such as packaging, pricing, stocking, cleaning, customer service and sales. An Outreach grant from Platte County Parks and Recreation allowed the construction of raised beds and a small greenhouse at Vaughn’s, with other gardens still located at Red Barn Farm. “This year was our most successful year with growing and selling produce such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, spinach, lettuce and more through the market,” Zimmerman said. Last year, the program expanded yet again with the launch of its Flour Sack Baking program, which allows students to cook at either the commercial kitchen facility at The Farmer’s House, or at Platte Woods United Methodist Church. “This program has been extremely popular and we have had a growing number of requests for our bakers to make things such as cobbler for 500 for the Wells Bank tailgate, cake pops for wedding receptions or showers and cookies for meetings or events,” Zimmerman said. “Because of the demand and since it is natural growth, we are exploring the possibility of having a catering program in the future, with the goal of providing some employment opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities.” This year, through a grant from the Platte County Board of Services, The Farmer’s House was able to hire job coaches to work with the school districts and to work one-on-one with the individual participants to provide vocational instruction. “Our goal with each of our programs is to teach vocational skills around a small business model,” Zimmerman said. “In all of the programs the participants are learning how to break down tasks into manageable pieces, how to plan, produce, package and market a product and how to work together with others to get a job done.” The building of all of these vital skills lead to one destination for the participants in The Farmer’s House programs — future jobs. “We are always looking for opportunities which align with our current culture and programs, that will provide great work experiences for our school participants and potential jobs for those that may be out of the school system,” Zimmerman said. “My goal is that by the time my daughter Anna leaves the school district at 21, we will have a program in place where her day would consist of some work, some recreation, some philanthropy and some social time with peers.”