It's been a very good growing season at 21 Roots Farm. The goats, cows, gardens, chickens and corn are thriving, but what has blossomed most this summer are the client-farmers who come to learn how to farm and in turn, cultivate skills, confidence and self-awareness.
The farmers at 21 Roots Farm are adults with a broad range of developmental disabilities. Here, the farmers break away from more regimented day programs and are immersed in the tasks of planting, harvesting and caring for livestock. This hands-on farming in rural Grant is a fresh alternative to traditional programming offered to adults with special needs.
The nonprofit 21 Roots Farm was launched by Laura Lutz, Brittany Wiitala and Amy Peterson, who physically, spiritually and emotionally willed their mission into being. They are intentional young farmers, dedicated to long-term sustainability, who are thoughtfully and methodically building a vision committed to nurturing those with learning disabilities. The name, 21 Roots, was inspired by the chromosomal makeup associated with Down syndrome, along with the earth’s ever-growing source of nourishment for plant life and the 21 acres that make up the farm.
Wiitala, Lutz and Peterson bring rich dimensions to the farm from family farming, college courses and work in horticulture and education. Wiitala uses an expression about their clients and the farm enterprise they are building. “Unexpected — that’s the word we use for our farmers when they bring us a new behavior or reaction. And when you are farming, nature and the animals throw a lot of the unexpected at you.”
The women see themselves as stewards of the land and they coach visiting farmers to become experts in fields of their choice. Many are learning farm-related trades that could lead to future employment.
The avenues for adventure and growth are abundant at 21 Roots Farm. Farmers can care for dairy goats, an apple orchard, chickens, cows and donkeys. They can explore vegetable gardening, beekeeping, prairie landscapes — and even make salsa with their own tomatoes. The natural interests their farmers exhibit informs the personalized path of learning supported by the three women. Farmers come to the farm through various agency referrals and by word of mouth. Programs for families and children are being developed for the future.
On 110th Street in Grant, there’s a modest sign that identifies 21 Roots Farm. A short tree-lined lane leads to a fenced paddock and a sturdy dairy barn that harbors a 2-week-old calf, two sister donkeys and a handful of friendly Nigerian goats. Beyond the barn, clusters of cows nap and graze in the tall grass.
Twenty steps from the older dairy barn stands a newer, bright red pole barn that currently lacks heat, interior walls, electricity and a septic system, but holds tremendous potential for group learning projects and storage space. Funds are being sought to make this building fully functional and to eventually add a commercial kitchen so farmers may prepare crops and products like goat cheese and goat milk soap for market.
Nature does the teaching at this mostly accessible farm. Small enhancements like core vocabulary boards with visual aids are posted in several places to assist farmer clients with personal expression and burgeoning collaboration skills. Pictorial descriptors are essential tools for nonverbal farmers.
Chickens chatter up on the hillside apple orchard and beehives are nestled on a sunny corner. Lutz and Wiitala walk a mowed prairie path through thickets of pines and indigenous trees. They stop under a canopy of pines, where they bring 21 Roots farmers to seek calm respite during busy days.
“You can plan and plan or just do it.” Wiitala talks about how their business plan developed organically. “We want 21 Roots to grow and meet some of the vast unmet needs and interests of those with developmental disabilities. Our own roots are newly planted ... but planted in fertile thought. We have a caring board and no shortage of energy.”
“We know we will experience barriers — just like our farmers do every day, but we want them to see and enjoy the fruits of their labor ... to plant and eat what they grow. We have already seen farmers move from fear to comfort with the animals.” Wiitala tells of one farmer who hopes to show a cow at next year’s county fair.
“Most people know the therapeutic power of nature and animals, and we love sharing that with our farmers and their families,” said Peterson.
Clad in flannel with an easy way with the animals, Lutz’s love for farming is unequivocal. “Our finding each other feels preordained. We may have once taken our family farming experience for granted, but it gave us strong roots .... we’re operating on a mutual commitment to our farmers, the land and our critters ... and it’s just the beginning.”
For more information, visit 21Rootsfarm.org.