Farmer’s House plants seeds of success for people with disabilities

05/21/2013 12:00 AM

05/20/2014 10:44 AM

Seven Park Hill South students stepped off the bus at the Farmer’s House Market near Weston last week wearing “Keep calm and garden on” T-shirts and headed into the greenhouse to collect tomato seedlings to plant.

Planting is what Farmer’s House is all about, both seeds in the ground and seeds of encouragement to prepare people with disabilities for jobs in the community. For the founders, Suzanne and Alan Zimmerman and Peaches and David Cunningham, it’s their dream come true.

The two couples met when their children Anna Zimmerman and John David Cunningham were enrolled at St. Luke’s Children’s SPOT, a developmental preschool. As they discussed their dreams for their children one day, David Cunningham mentioned a that a farm setting would be great for his son. Suzanne Zimmerman, surprised, said she had the same dream for Anna.

“It was meant to be,” she said. “It was God’s design.”

Organized in 2005, a planning group focused on how best to give youth and adults with developmental disabilities encouragement, support and hope in a rural setting.

The nonprofit Farmer’s House is different from the traditional sheltered workshop, Suzanne said. It is a functioning business model that incorporates three programs: the Seeds of Change Farm, the Farmer’s House Market and Flour Sack Baking.

“I look at us as the incubator cultivating their skills, Suzanne Zimmerman said. “Explore and grow.”

And that is what the farmers do.

“All have their favorite job,” said Colleen Fulton, the Farmer’s House Market manager.

Recently, the program was one of just eight pilots in Missouri to be selected for funding from Show-Me-Careers, which targets 16- to 30-year-olds with intellectual or developmental disabilities who are transitioning from school settings to integrated community employment.

Four days each week during the school year high school students from one of the three participating school districts — West Platte, Platte County R-III and Park Hill — travel to Farmer’s House to work. Some adults with developmental disabilities come from the Platte County Board of Services. Other participants go on weekends and during the summer with parents or other volunteers.

Suzanne Zimmerman started the Seeds of Change Garden, a 30- by 50 foot plot of land at the Weston Red Barn Farm, in 2011. It lies across the road from the market and teaches vocational skills such as planning, planting, growing, distributing and selling produce.

Thanks to a grant from the Platte County Parks and Recreation Department, Suzanne Zimmerman said, the greenhouse was constructed and volunteers built raised planting beds to accommodate farmers in wheelchairs.

Next to open, in April 2012, was the Farmer’s House Market, which sells the produce and gift items, major sources of revenue. Suzanne Zimmerman, who has a finance background, manages the agency’s $350,000 budget. Two-thirds of that comes from the sales at the store, and grants, fundraisers and donations provide the rest.

Finding the market building required a long search and a major refurbishing before it opened in in the former Vaughn’s apple market. Preparing the building, which had been closed for three years, meant dealing with no running water, freezing weather and things that had been left behind — including a ham. Organizers say they couldn’t have done it without volunteer labor and donated roofing, plumbing, carpentry and equipment. Volunteers are still an important part of running the Farmer’s House programs.

Advertised as “A place where special farmers live, work, play and grow,” the market recently celebrated its first anniversary.

The third program, Flour Sack Baking, trains participants to prepare food, plan, bake, package, market and sell their product. The signature item is the caramel apple cookie baked by participants at Platte Woods United Methodist Church and the Farmer’s House Market kitchen. Pies and dumplings are also available at the store.

“This is a feel-good place,” Peaches Cunningham said. “The kids are comfortable here.” And the dream continues to grow.

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