Local nonprofit 21 Roots Farm brings meaningful activities to people impacted by developmental disabilities. With programming for both youths and adults, activities on the farm are as fresh as each new season since the farm’s start in 2019.
When the founders of 21 Roots Farm first met in college, they had different experiences working with people with disabilities. Brittany Wiitala had worked at a group home, while Amy Peterson was studying kinesiology with a minor in special education.
But after volunteering with the Minnesota Autism Society and both participating in a week-long camp, Wiitala and Peterson knew they wanted to create their own organization and opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.
From the get-go, Wiitala and Peterson knew they wanted to create nature-focused programming for people with developmental disabilities. “I think especially people with disabilities are further removed from certain knowledge,” Wiitala says.
Growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, Wiitala says it wasn’t until adulthood that she realized how exceptional her experience was. “I did things because my dad told me to, not because I had any interest in farming,” Wiitala says. “In adulthood, I realized what a privileged way to grow up [that was] and to know where my food came from.”
The more Wiitala and Peterson discussed their dream, the more things began to take shape. Between meaningful opportunities in nature, animal therapy, and knowing where food comes from, the answer was fairly clear to the pair: their interests and passions sounded a lot like a farming.
“As we were getting more serious about it, we had the property picked out, scheduled an inspection, started our nonprofit, and literally the day before, I was like, “Amy, we need to find a farmer,” Wiitala says. “Then the next day, we came for the inspection. The inspector didn’t show, but Laura was here.”
Laura Lutz was an Animal Science major at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls who had been keeping her cows on the property with the previous owners. During an initial conversation, Lutz shared her dream of starting a farm for people with disabilities. “I just thought, ‘Shut up!’” Wiitala says, laughing. “Along this journey we’ve had a lot of those moments of just, ‘Are you kidding me? Is this real?’”
Another instance of serendipitous coincidence resulted in the naming of the farm itself, which is comprised of 21 acres. “We started to think about it, and a lot of people behind the vision have Down syndrome,” Wiitala says. “Down syndrome is three copies of the twenty-first chromosome, so [the name] was a way of honoring them.”
Fitting as it was, the name 21 Acres was already taken. “So then roots; everyone involved has their own intricate root system below the surface of different experiences,” Peterson says. “That kind of drives what we’re doing.”
To support this myriad of root systems each participant possesses, 21 Roots Farm has programming as diverse as its farmers. “Being on a farm, there’s always projects and always things to do,” Peterson says. “I think our youth programming and our adult programming, it just depends on the abilities and interests of the participating farmers. We shift to what’s most interesting to them.”
One story Peterson likes to tell is that of a participating farmer in his 30s. “His mom wrote that he dreamt of being a farmer his whole life,” Peterson says. “We thought, ‘Oh great!’” But when they met the participant, it was clear certain parts of farm work simply didn’t suit him.
“He was the slowest moving guy; didn’t like to be dirty, would stop and brush every piece of hay off his arm,” Peterson says. The one aspect he did love was the cows. “He’d be at the fence line, kind of yelling at everybody, like, ‘Be nice to the cows!’” Peterson says. “So, then I thought, ‘Oh, what if we could teach him showmanship?’”
He and another participant trained the farm’s steers to get ready for the Washington County Fair, which was unfortunately canceled last year due to COVID-19. So instead, 21 Roots Farm hosted its own small fair, so the participants’ families could see all of their hard work on display.
“Their families got to see them take the steers out on the halter and bathe them, groom them, blow dry them. They got to see all the steps, so it was a really cool experience.”
Activities are also directed by the seasons and this year is expected to bring new opportunities into the mix with the completion of a pole barn last fall. Both Peterson and Wiitala say they’re excited to expand their programming into the winter, something they haven’t been able to do for the past two years.
“We’re going to be milking our goats and freeze a lot of the milk, possibly to make soap in the fall and winter,” Peterson says. “We also have alpacas, so we’re going to be sheering them and we’ll have their fibers to work with which will be a great winter project.”
To find out more about 21 Roots Farm and its different programming, you can learn more at 21rootsfarm.org.