ST. PAUL, Minn. — Amanda Athman helped pick up the mobile chicken coop at 21 Roots Farm in Grant and move it to a fresh patch of grass just south of the farm’s apple orchard.

Athman knew just how fast to push the coop so that the squawking chickens could keep up. She then found a spot for the chickens’ “dust bath” — a blue plastic tub full of dirt. A regular dust bath, she explained, helps keep their feathers clean by controlling parasites and preventing oil buildup.

Athman, 22, of Lino Lakes, is part of a pilot program this summer at 21 Roots, a nonprofit hobby farm that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She and five other interns — all of whom have been regular attendees of programs at the farm — have been tapped to be part of a 20-week work-experience program where they are being “trained to be trainers,” said Brittany Wiitala, one of the co-founders of the farm.

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Next year, they’ll help train others to work on the farm’s produce-subscription program. The interns are receiving a stipend for attending the weekly training sessions, which focus on autonomy, safety and engagement.

Athman was checking all three boxes on a recent Tuesday. She gave the chickens fresh water and five scoops of pellet feed and checked on their egg production.

“This is a fake egg,” she said, pointing to a wooden egg labeled “fake.” “We have it there so they know where to lay their eggs.”

Athman, who has developmental delay, was diagnosed as a child with selective mutism, an anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations.

“You’d never know that when you see her at the farm,” said her mother, Julie Athman. “She’s a totally different person at the farm and when she’s with animals. That’s why we just love that place. It’s just opened her up so much. It’s done wonders for her.”

Athman helps care for the farm’s donkeys, alpacas, goats, sheep, cows and barn cats. Her special talent is trimming hooves. “She is super-precise and careful and cautious, but also efficient,” farm co-founder Amy Peterson said.

Recently, Athman helped shear Butterscotch and Sugar, the farm’s Huacaya alpacas, and Oscar and Tilly, the farm’s Shetland sheep. Eventually, she’ll help turn that wool into dryer balls that will be sold at the farm’s holiday market in December.

“My dream for Amanda is that she could live on that farm and care for the animals,” Julie Athman said. “She would love that.”

The 21 Roots co-founders have a similar wish: “Our dream is that we will continue to be a working farm and employ people with disabilities,” Wiitala said. “Caring for plants and animals just gives you such a sense of satisfaction.”

Purpose and community

Founded in 2019, 21 Roots Farm offers nature and agriculture-based programming that helps people with developmental disabilities cultivate a sense of purpose and community and learn about agriculture.

Wiitala and Peterson met while they were students at the University of Northwestern, a Christian college in Roseville.

Peterson, 38, grew up in St. Louis Park and graduated from Northwestern in 2007. After graduation, she worked for six years at Adventurous Christian, a wilderness camp in Grand Marais, Minn. She serves as head of farm operations.

Wiitala, 38, the farm’s program manager, grew up in Auburndale, Wis., where her father worked in agriculture as an artificial inseminator. After graduating from Northwestern in 2006, she worked serving people impacted by disabilities in a variety of settings. Among her clients: a family who adopted three children with Down syndrome.

While in school, the women often talked about creating a program to help people with developmental disabilities. “Amy and I did a stint at the Minnesota Autism Society, working at their weeklong camps, and it was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, how do parents do this day in and day out?'” Wiitala said. “We knew how important respite was.”

Said Peterson: “When Brittany and I set out to do this, we weren’t necessarily thinking it was going to be a farm, but I love nature and the outdoors, and I love animals. The idea of farming just evolved because Brittany really cared about where food comes from, but I really wanted to teach people about animals. We realized, ‘Well, that’s kind of a farm.'”

The family who adopted the three children with Down syndrome were instrumental in helping craft their plan, Wiitala said.

“When I would work, I would say, ‘What would you do? How would this look?'” she said. “For them as parents, it was, ‘What do I want for my kids? I want them to have a job, but maybe not every day.’ So this would be a great place — you’re in nature, you’re doing meaningful work, and so that’s kind of how it came to be.”

The women looked at several properties before finding the hobby farm on 110th Street North in 2018. A financial backer purchased the property, and the nonprofit organization is paying it off through a contract-for-deed arrangement, she said.

“It was everything we were looking for: It was the right price; it had an orchard that was established; they had the restored prairie; garden space; silver maple trees for maple syruping,” she said. “It has pastures and the barn and everything. Everything was in pretty good shape, and it was well taken care of.”

21 acres — and more

The total number of acres — 21 — also had special significance, Wiitala said.

Down syndrome occurs when a person is born with an extra copy of chromosome 21, and “a lot of people behind the dream have Down syndrome,” she said. “21 Roots just made sense. Everyone involved has this intricate root system below the surface, and that’s kind of what is driving us. You don’t see everything.”

The farmers at 21 Roots Farm are adults with a broad range of developmental disabilities. Many are over the age of 21 and have graduated from their school district’s school-to-work transition programs.

21 Roots is an alternative to traditional programming offered to adults with disabilities, Wiitala said. “We’re not a day program; we’re a supplement,” she said. “Everyone is involved in other things. We take breaks here and there; we’re not full time. Doing something different is important — rather than doing the same thing day in, day out.”

Chad Bracewell, 25, of Stillwater, for instance, works in Oak Park Heights as a stocker at Walmart and a bagger at Kowalski’s. He also takes part in Project SEARCH at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, a program for people with intellectual and physical disabilities that combines classroom instruction, career exploration and hands-on training through workplace rotations.

Bracewell has a rare genetic disorder and is on the autism spectrum. He has a hard time making friends. His passion is helping create elaborate Halloween and holiday displays outside his family’s house in Stillwater’s South Hill neighborhood.

“Chad is really a person who is in danger of being really isolated and lonely and depressed,” said his mother, Michelle Bracewell-Musson. “There’s kind of this invisible wall around people like Chad, and working on the farm has made that wall disappear. He probably has a lot more friends than I do now.”

Chad Bracewell spent part of one recent morning planting tomato seedlings and cucumber seeds. Each cucumber seed had to be planted two inches beneath the ground, and Bracewell was charged with using a handheld seed-measuring device to create the perfect holes.

“We wanted to find something that gave him dignity, a sense of purpose and had opportunities to grow,” Michelle Bracewell-Musson said. “We also wanted it to be open-ended and public — that was really important to us, the social aspect of it. I also wanted him to be in a place where he would have some leadership opportunities — as opposed to, ‘These people are in charge, and you are always a follower.'”

Chad Bracewell learned last year how to wash, groom and show cattle for competition. “He’s learned all these skills — things I don’t know how to do,” she said. “I wanted him to learn beyond what we could give. He’s very proud of himself, and he is proud of what he does.”

‘Goat whisperer’

The farm offers programming for children ages 12 to 17 during the summer and adult programming — for those 18 and older — all year long. Most of the 30 or so participants come to the farm one to three times a week, Wiitala said.

Coming to the farm is a highlight of Molly Thompson’s week. Thompson, 21, of Mahtomedi, likes brushing the goats’ coats with a blue stiff-bristled brush. “I’m the goat whisperer,” she said.

She also likes collecting freshly laid eggs at the chicken coop. Her haul on a recent Tuesday included pink, blue, green, tan and brown eggs. “Eggs are one of my favorite foods,” she said. “I love fried eggs and scrambled eggs. And you need eggs to make pancakes and waffles.”

One of her favorite chickens at the farm is a Polish hen named George Washington. “She’s the one with the cool fluffy feathers on top of her head,” she said.

Thompson, who has Down syndrome, also works at Kowalski’s in White Bear Lake. After graduating from Mahtomedi High School in 2020, she enrolled in the Mahtomedi school district’s Passages transition program, which she completed this month. Next fall, she’ll attend Bethel University’s BUILD Program, a two-year certificate program for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Working at 21 Roots this summer is an “amazing opportunity, something I never even dreamed of,” said her mother, Jen Thompson. “I’ve seen her confidence grow. She has so much pride in the workings of the farm and her involvement in the farm.”

The farmers at 21 Roots harvest honey from beehives, churn butter and make goat-milk soap. They cook “farm-to-table” meals together with vegetables they’ve grown on the farm.

“Molly will come home with a printed recipe and will often make that recipe at home,” Jen Thompson said. “She gets really excited because she has seen the food from the planting all the way through using it to make something that they then eat.”

John and Jen Thompson love having their daughter show them around the farm. “She’s so confident,” Jen Thompson said. “She knows how the animals are cared for. She understands now how seeds are sprouted into plants and takes pride in planting them. It’s just such a loving atmosphere, with lots of opportunity. They give these young adults the reins to really do everything.”

The farm has provided meaningful and compelling work and given her skills that will carry over into other jobs, Jen Thompson said. Molly is a hard worker, loves to connect with people and always remembers people’s names, her mother said.

“Working at the farm would be a perfect job for her,” she said. “If she can grow into a leadership role by training new farmers in — well, that’s something that is pretty unique and would be an incredible opportunity for her. That would stretch her in lots of ways.”

The skills that Molly and the other interns are learning this summer “can be used anywhere,” said Mariana Giovino, the farm’s director of development. “They’re learning collaboration and teamwork; they’re learning discipline and focus. Those are all things that they can take to any kind of job.”

Eventually, the interns will train and work with their peers at the farm, she said. “Ultimately, that’s what this farm is about: having peers work with each other. People like us are meant to blend in the background.”

Still learning to farm

Wiitala and Peterson admit they are still learning how to operate a hobby farm. They follow farmers on Instagram, watch YouTube videos and do a lot of Google searches, Wiitala said. “I rely on my dad a lot,” she said. “I always call him and say, ‘Is this the Tractor Hotline?'”

Experimenting is a big part of farm life, and it’s important for the farmers at 21 Roots to see that there “isn’t a wrong way to do things,” Wiitala said. “Part of it is seeing what works. If something doesn’t work, we can always come back and say, ‘What can we do differently next time?’ It’s a safe space to make mistakes. We’re not crying about broken eggs or spilled milk.”

A do-it-yourself hydroponic tube that the farmers built last year for growing tomatoes failed spectacularly, she admits.

“How many times did we try and get it to work?” she asked the farmers.

“A hundred,” Chad Bracewell answered.

“Well, at least three or four times,” she said. “We didn’t get our seal right. It was a good lesson in perseverance. We’re disappointed, but we can move on. Next year, I think we’re going to buy a hydroponic tower to grow things in the winter. We’re looking for different ways to grow things.”

The farmers grow herbs, tomatoes, broccoli, onions, cucumbers, carrots, garlic, cantaloupe, cabbage, purple cauliflower, kale, pole beans, spinach, okra, soybeans, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, sweet potatoes, potatoes, eggplant, kohlrabi, peppers, sunflowers, pumpkins, zucchini, summer squash, winter squash, cantaloupe, watermelon, beets and green onions. The produce harvested each week is shared with 15 families who have signed up for the farm’s produce-subscription program. “It’s sort of like a mini-CSA,” Peterson said.

Each farmer contributes to the effort, and everyone brings a different skill set, Michelle Bracewell-Musson said. Some are experts at delivering food boxes to families, others are great at adding up the number of vegetables in each box, and others are great at writing out what’s inside of them, she said.

“Amy and Brittany do a great job of finding each person’s expert hat, if you will, and giving them the opportunity to have leadership in that role,” she said. “What I love is the full-circle aspect of it. You plant a seed, and it turns into a vegetable, and then it gets delivered to the community, and the community benefits from it. It’s just really far-reaching — very much like a pebble being thrown into the middle of a pond.”

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