Advocacy & Activism, Education

A New Life on the Farm

From, Mike Kilen, 12 May 2011.

Flores grabs feed for chickens after putting them out to graze during his job at Raccoon Forks Farm, a chemical-free organic farm that serves as a job-training site for disabled adults. / MARY CHIND / REGISTER PHOTOS

Flores grabs feed for chickens after putting them out to graze during his job at Raccoon Forks Farm, a chemical-free organic farm that serves as a job-training site for disabled adults. / MARY CHIND / REGISTER PHOTOS

Chris Flores lives and works on eight-acre Raccoon Forks Farm, and he’s been waiting a long time for this May day.

New residents will arrive.

“They’ll be about this big,” he said, cupping his hands to show the size of little chicks. “They come in the mail in a box.”

Flores, classified as mild-to-moderately retarded, begins morning chores at 8 by freeing the laying hens from the coop into the yard. The chickens don’t care about classifications.

“This is going to be the fun part,” he says, as he dumps feed to chickens who circle him, clucking and plucking in the fenced yard.

He likes to pet them and is worried when one appears sick or dehydrated.

“A lot of these guys come from institutions and have little hardened hearts,” says one of the farm managers, Laura Glanert. “Then the chickens sit on their laps and they just melt into puddles.”

The farm combined two feel-good ideas, growing produce and eggs to sell locally and employing adults with disabilities to do it. Optimae LifeServices, a private human services agency that has worked with Iowans with special needs since 1987, started the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm three years ago, hoping that nurturing plants and animals would nurture a sense of independence and accomplishment among its workers.

Flores, 30, lives with three other adults with disabilities in an old farm house next to gardens, a greenhouse and a hoop house of small plants peeking out of tilled ground – lettuce and onions, radishes and peppers, Swiss chard and eggplant, cilantro and tomatoes. Eight more workers with disabilities are brought to the farm to help with chores, overseen by a staff of four, none with prior experience working with special-needs populations.

THE STAFF is as diverse as the clients. Glanert is the agriculture expert, an Iowa State University graduate who never thought she would work with people with disabilities but now is delighted to watch people grow as much as plants.

“It changes them a lot,” she said. “It gives them that self confidence you have when you have a legitimate job skill. They have a valued role. They aren’t treated like kids here. They are expected to do a job.”

Rick Von Holdt, 64, who retired from book production at Meredith in Des Moines, is a farm manager who poured over books and studied plans to design a farm to produce enough for weekly customer orders and a booth at the Waukee Farmers Market.

The rewards go beyond big tomatoes.

“This is probably the best shot in their lives to get out of an institutionalized environment,” he says. “We know we aren’t ever going to cure them but, as much as we can, make life more normal and enriched as possible. What they are producing here is something tangible. There is a pride when they go to the farmers market. This is what they planted.”

Marvin Wieck is a former factory worker who has two stepsons with special needs. Now a job coach who oversees the greenhouse, Wieck is in the midst of radiation treatments for prostate cancer but doesn’t miss a day.

“This keeps me motivated and keeps my mind off of it,” he says. “You get to see the guys grow. Some have come a long ways.”

He is joined by another job coach, Dennis Yearous, a retired math teacher who never quit teaching. He often touts a study to illustrate a point: A group of high achievers and a group of low achievers were each given a set of Tinker Toys to build a structure in a timed exercise. High achievers were frozen by fear of failure and over thinking. The low achievers dug right in, failed, tried again, and got it done. He sees that same ingenuity in the farm workers.

“We don’t expect perfection. You see out in the field all the rows aren’t perfectly straight,” Yearous said. “Those plants will grow just as good in a crooked row as in a straight one.”

Indeed, the company takes its name from the Latin word “optime,” which means “as best one can.”

The men, referred to the farm by case workers, earn minimum wage and aren’t forced to work. “We’re teaching empowerment through choice,” Glanert said. “The lesson is the right way is not always the easy way. No one is telling them to go to bed anymore, so at first they are thrilled to stay up late. But the next day they are whipped, so they learn to go to bed early.”

They learn if they don’t work or spend their paychecks too quickly, they’ll be broke.

It isn’t always easy. Some clients don’t work out, and some staff members have quit because they don’t see improvements in behavior that many times can’t be changed.

CHRIS FLORES spends the morning cleaning out chicken poop from the coop, pulling a few weeds in the hoop house and running a rotary tiller through the garden. He loves to talk it all through, almost every sentence beginning with “I love” or “I like.”

I love the chickens. I like to collect eggs. I love to mow. I like doing my routine. I love to go to the market.

At market, he tells people how to cook vegetables. He can explain why the farm isn’t officially certified organic – nearby farms spraying row crops are too close to their gardens – although it is chemical free, uses organic fertilizer and feed and the chickens roam free in the yard.

He once worked in jobs with limited satisfaction, common for those with disabilities, loading trucks or building boxes.

“I had a brother who died,” he also adds.

Many of the workers have had it tough. Flores was placed in state care at age 16, said his mother Deb Gretillat of Des Moines, after the son was abused by her old boyfriend. His older brother died of cancer recently.

Gretillat now sees him on home visits and has marveled at his personal growth and sense of freedom on the farm.

“He can go where he wants. He works like we do, makes money like we do and can buy what he wants,” she said.

Flores and a roommate on the farm are best buds. Both are excited as the hour nears for the new residents to arrive. These will be the farm’s first broilers to raise from chicks.

THE FARM started with a single hoe but over three years has gathered a 1946 tractor, tillers and other equipment as the size of the gardens has doubled.

It’s not unusual for businesses to employ those with disabilities but jobs aren’t always rewarding or plentiful, especially in a down economy. So Optimae LifeServices President Bill Dodds wondered if adding a new component to its agency might work – small, break-even businesses that provide clients long-term job opportunities with meaning and responsibility.

Nine years ago Optimae opened Plain Talk Books, a coffee shop and bookstore still operating in the East Village of Des Moines, which became a model for the new Brick Street Books and Café in Adel, and Raccoon Forks Trading Company, an antiques and used furniture store in Des Moines. The farm was is its newest idea.

“It gives them a valued role in life,” Dodds said. “When you go to a party, the first thing someone asks you is ‘What do you do?’ If your answer is ‘I’m a mental patient’ you really don’t have a fulfilling life. We’re trying to help people who can say, ‘I’m a farmer.'”

Chris Flores is a farmer who has empathy for his animals. He was shook up when hens past prime laying were taken for slaughter for stock and soups. But he came to understand the cycles of life on the farm.

He’s thinking now that someday he wants to have his own apartment and a greenhouse job.

“We are watching human beings change in front of us,” Glanert said.

It’s a day of change on the farm.

The new chicks have arrived by late morning. Flores cups them in his hands, dipping their beaks in the water so they know where to find it while gently talking to them.

Some chicks will be different, such as one pulled from the box with a disabled leg. Flores helps make little feet paddles so it can join the crowd of other chicks.

Source and more photos at:, “A new life on the farm” by Mike Kilen, 12 May 2011.


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