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Farm program provides opportunity for adults with developmental disabilities

Times West Virginian - 6/24/2018

June 24--GRAFTON -- Ann Burns' son has autism.

Now a high school junior, Isaiah has received excellent programming in Marion County through all his school years, Burns said, but after he graduates, programs and job opportunities for him will be limited.

"He is not going to be able to get a job in a conventional way," Burns said. "He'll always need job coaching, he'll always need a sheltered work environment where someone is able to supervise and help him.

"There aren't very many programs like that in West Virginia."

So in 2014, the Homestead Farm Center was incorporated. Its mission: to train individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities on gardening and farming skills.

Burns and her husband Dan live on his family farm in Grafton. They bought 100 acres adjoining the farm that they knew would be the perfect site to create a farm center for people with disabilities.

After a few years of developing programming, securing funding and building a greenhouse on the property, Burns, the volunteer director, got the first trainee program under way.

Last year was the first for the program, and in its second year, there are eight trainees working on the farm.

"We would like to have more, as we get more funding," Burns said. "There's a lot of interest in the program."

The Homestead Farm Center works in partnership with the Disability Action Center in Fairmont, and members of the Rural to Urban Agricultural Learning (RURAL) group train on the farm over 12 weeks in the summer.

The trainees work in the greenhouse, planting seeds, watering plants, and learning how to manage the greenhouse with temperature control and pest monitoring.

They also work in the Fairmont Community Garden, building and maintaining raised beds and growing plants and vegetables.

Also at the Homestead Farm Center, the trainees learn about bee hive management, and on a recent Thursday they were building hive boxes. Though they don't work directly with the bees, they learn the parts of the hive, and how to extract honey. They've also built birdhouses and learn how to work with small livestock on the farm, such as sheep, goats, chickens and turkeys.

"They learn how to raise chicks, how to feed chickens, how to harvest eggs, how to put the eggs for sale, how to feed sheep," Burns said.

The sheep on the farm are Katahdin, and were donated by Gary and Linda Morgan to start the farm's herd, Burns said, adding that they've been big supporters of the endeavor.

Another facet of the program is learning land stewardship, Burns said.

"Not only do you give back to your community, but give back to the earth and try to maintain a place for all the members of the ecosystem," she said.

The trainees will also learn about nutrition and healthy eating.

"One of our goals is to have them eating more vegetables, more healthy things," Burns said, adding that the program shows them new ways to incorporate vegetables into their diet.

One day a week, the trainees will work on projects that they've grown to take to the farmer's market

"We'd like to be able to offset some of our program costs by selling at farmer's markets, maybe selling produce to some local restaurants when we get up to that level," Burns said. "The greenhouse is a wonderful asset for that, because we're gonna get some out-of-season vegetables."

The program is free for the trainees, who actually get a stipend of $10 per day to help with expenses, such as sun hats, work boots and sun-resistant gear.

Ryan Nay of Farmington was working on sanding some of the newly built bee hive boxes recently. This is his second year in the program, which he describes as awesome.

"It got me out of the house, working on things," Nay said. "It's very, very self-gratifying. I like it a lot. I could come here for the rest of my life I think.

"It gives you a sense of accomplishment," Nay said of his work on the farm. "You feel better when you get something done."

As a second-year member of the program, Nay serves as a mentor for some of the newer trainees.

Justin Spurr of Fairmont is in his first year with the program. He said it's been a good experience for him, and in just a short amount of time in the program, he's done work such as cleaning out sheep stalls, working in the garden, and learning how to make proper soil and compost, though he's never done farm work before.

Later in the afternoon, Spurr and the other trainees would be going to the Fairmont Community Garden to build raised beds.

"It's really nice because we're not only helping the program, we're helping out the community, we're helping out a little bit of everyone, just one small step at a time," Spurr said.

One of the goals of the program along with improving trainees' health and wellness is to get them more involved in their community, Burns said, as well as to "give them an opportunity for learning some skills that they can possibly seek employment someday, working for a landscaper, working for a greenhouse."

Burns hopes that the program will get more funding so that it can grow.

"Our ultimate dream for this farm center is to have a residential component," she said. "Lots of families asked us about the possibility of having residences for people to come and live on the farm. We would like that to be a reality someday."

The Homestead Farm Center will be having a "Raise the Roof" barbecue fundraising dinner on Aug. 25 at the farm.

"We are raising money to build an outdoor classroom pavilion that will accommodate larger groups (the class stall can only fit six students) with a kitchen which we can use for nutrition and vegetable prep lessons, as well as getting produce ready for the farmers market, and a real restroom for workers and visitors to use," Burns said.

Tickets for the dinner will be available at the Disability Action Center closer to the event.

Those interested in donating to help the Homestead Farm Center or learning more about the program can visit www.homesteadfarmcenter.org.

Tiffany Towner is the editor of the Times West Virginian. She can be reached at ttowner@timeswv.com or (304) 367-2523.


(c)2018 the Times West Virginian (Fairmont, W. Va.)

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