Thanks to his Drumm Farm egg business, a boy with Asperger’s comes out of his shell

05/17/2014 6:56 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Kody Saak picked up a flapping farm chicken and pressed it to his cheek.

“This is a cinnamon queen,” the 10-year-old said.

He placed that chicken down and found another, putting its feathers to his face.

“It’s a turken,” he said.

Kody, on this day wearing a T-shirt that reads “Chicks Dig Me,” rules a chicken coop at the Drumm Farm Center for Children in Independence. Its 158 chickens produce about 400 eggs a week.

Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at 5, Kody long has exhibited the developmental disorder’s symptoms, which often include social awkwardness and an all-absorbing interest in specific topics. With Kody, the disorder also sometimes meant a lack of eye contact, a resistance to physical affection and even a reluctance to allow a family member to hold his hand.

But it’s here, among his chickens, where Kody has come out of his shell.

For the past two years, he has tended the chickens and prepared the eggs for market. He was almost 8 years old when the center’s board decided to bring back farm animals to the Drumm Farm site, in tribute to the facility’s legacy of using agricultural tasks to develop enterprise skills and self-esteem in the young people who live there.

What happened next surprised everyone.

Kody not only launched his own egg business, he developed social skills that previously eluded him.

A year ago the crowds that came to the Drumm Farm’s farmers market stand sometimes made him uncomfortable.

But early Saturday, Kody was the star of the center’s egg sales marketing campaign (Kody’s Eggcellent Eggs), greeting customers during the first Saturday of the Drumm Farm farmers market season.

He sat with two chickens — Snowflake the white leghorn and Tina the ameraucana — by a small tent near the farm’s entrance off Lee’s Summit Road. When parents sometimes brought children forward, Kody explained the chickens’ features, such as their combs and wattles.

By 9:30 a.m. he had sold 10 dozen eggs, and customers kept pulling up.

“I need a dozen,” said Ashley Hardy of Independence.

Kody grabbed a carton from a nearby cooler and opened it to make sure his information sheet remained in place. It told the date the eggs had been laid and explained that fresh eggs normally can be used for up to two months.

At least 12 of his chickens lay the occasional green egg. When he has enough, Kody will pack one in each carton as a bonus. He makes sure customers aren’t taken back by it.

“Green eggs aren’t bad,” he told Hardy.

“I know,” she said. “I’m not afraid.”

Kody’s Eggcellent Eggs was never on anyone’s radar, said Brad Smith, the center’s executive director.

“It certainly evolved organically.”

Andrew Drumm, the rancher who founded the facility as an orphanage in 1929 and operated it as a working farm, believed that children benefited from understanding how to work with others and accomplish tasks, Smith said.

“There is a therapeutic process that happens when kids engage with animals,” Smith said.

Today the Drumm Farm Center offers homes or programs for foster children as well as for young people who have aged out of foster care or who are homeless. And about three years ago, the farm’s staff members began bringing in goats, sheep and chickens.

They assigned Kody to feed the chickens. At some point he got online and typed “chickens” into a search engine. It wasn’t long before he was the center’s go-to guy for the birds.

“He was picking the chickens up, petting them and talking to them,” Smith said.

Now Kody keeps the chicken coop key secure in a lanyard worn around his neck and serves as a constant source of chicken background.

“It takes 25 hours to make an egg,” he said on a recent morning.

That’s about right, though the process differs among breeds and can be influenced by variables. Kody and his father, Rob Saak, chart weekly production and discuss possible reasons behind the occasional spike or drop-off.

“There are many predators of chickens,” Kody said. “Owls, hawks, coyotes.”

Not long after the first chickens arrived, they roamed free on the center’s 46-acre site. Occasionally staff members would come across evidence of one having been carried off in the night.

All this information and more Kody will offer when he sometimes takes his chickens to his classroom at Glendale Elementary School, where he is in the fourth grade.

“It helps him being successful among his peers,” said Heather Saak, Kody’s mother.

The chickens also coaxed other parts of Kody’s personality, such as his affectionate side.

“The chickens have shifted that for him and given him a transferable skill,” his mother said. “When he began showing the chickens affection, it didn’t seem so foreign to him.

“Now every night he kisses all of his girls goodnight and then after that he will want a kiss goodnight for himself.”

Saak and her husband took Kody in as a foster child at 7 weeks old and adopted him at 15 months. Today, Kody lives at the center with his six adopted siblings and nine foster siblings.

“Today he allows us to hold his hand again,” Saak said.

Some breeds of chickens are dual purpose, meaning that they are good egg layers but also good to eat. Though some Drumm Farm chickens end up being processed, that business is conducted off-site.

“We are trying to build the idea of caring and nurturing,” Saak said.

The birds also have brought out yet another side of Kody: the market-cornering entrepreneur.

It started with those first chickens. About two years ago Kody came into Smith’s office and asked to be allowed to care for some of them.

Smith agreed.

“But as he was leaving my office, he said, ‘Now we are competitors and I know what you sell your eggs for, and I’m going to sell them for a little less,’” Smith said. “That was the end of the conversation.”

After consulting with Kody’s parents, Smith called Kody back to the table days later.

“I told him that this felt like a hostile takeover and suggested that he take care of all the chickens.”

Kody had to make an offer, which amounted to about $700, for the chickens. He would pay with money from the allowance he earned for feeding the chickens. The two negotiated a deal where Drumm would underwrite expenses, such as capital and marketing costs, while Kody would use part of his egg proceeds to purchase feed.

Also part of the deal: materials with which to build a spacious chicken coop where the chickens would be safe from predators but also have ample room.

Kody and his father designed the coop, with wire fencing standing perhaps 8 feet tall.

“We actually signed a contract,” Smith said.

Kody soon designed his own business cards online. He also has demonstrated corporate responsibility. At the annual Drumm Farm Center benefit earlier this month, Kody offered at auction two dozen eggs a month for a year. The approximately $100 annual value sold to two bidders at $5,000 each, Saak said.

Today the Drumm Farm Center operates under zoning classifications that allow it to pursue agricultural and commercial activities alongside its residential facilities, which serve as home to 31 young people, Smith said.

The majority of the items sold at the Drumm Farmers Market — eggs along with honey as well as produce such as lettuce, tomatoes and spinach — are prepared on site.

Among Saturday’s customers was Dave Caldwell of Independence, who spent seven years at the Drumm Farm as a boy in the 1950s and still remembers the chickens he helped raised as well as all the cows he milked.

“Kody’s eggs!” Caldwell said to Kody. “Are they deviled yet?”

Kody grabbed another carton and checked the information sheet.

By noon, he had sold 28 dozen for $4 each.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

Off to market

The farmers market at Drumm Farm Center for Children, 3210 S. Lee’s Summit Road in Independence, is open from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays through September.

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