2011-09-29 / Community

New group to help autistic people gain life skills through farming

By Stephanie Bertholdo


A SHOE IN—Kevin, a participant in Farming Independent’s animal husbandry program, removes Rio’s old shoe while Rick Barnard a local farrier, offers guidance. Barnard volunteers his time at the farm to teach shoeing. 
Photo courtesy Sheila Mayfield A SHOE IN—Kevin, a participant in Farming Independent’s animal husbandry program, removes Rio’s old shoe while Rick Barnard a local farrier, offers guidance. Barnard volunteers his time at the farm to teach shoeing. Photo courtesy Sheila Mayfield A new nonprofit organization is teaching organic gardening, animal husbandry, cooking and other practical skills to young adults diagnosed with autism and developmental disabilities.

Agoura Hills residents Sheila and Steve Mayfield launched Farming Independence last January from their home in Old Agoura.

Sheila Mayfield said she was moved to start the organization when she learned about the increase in the numbers of people diagnosed with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Mayfield found that transitional programs for young adults facing developmental challenges were lacking in California, in part due to state budget cuts and also fewer money streams from the private sector.


YUMMY GOODNESS— Farming Independence participants, from left, Kevin, Tim, Rob and Dan display the pizza they baked in the culinary program using tomatos grown in the farm’s organic garden. 
Photo courtesy Sheila Mayfield YUMMY GOODNESS— Farming Independence participants, from left, Kevin, Tim, Rob and Dan display the pizza they baked in the culinary program using tomatos grown in the farm’s organic garden. Photo courtesy Sheila Mayfield The goal of her group is to help adults leaving the school system to gain useful work and social skills that will last a lifetime. Young adults with developmental problems need help making transitions from school to work so they can live as independently as possible, she said.

Mayfield, who has a background in international business, finance and marketing, was pleased to find established organizations that used farming as a means for learning life skills. Some aspects of Farming Independence have been modeled on farming programs in New York and outside of Chicago.

“Being a lover of animals and nature, I have a deep respect and appreciation for the therapeutic value that Mother Nature provides us,” Mayfield said. “The natural environment has an innate ability to calm and restore us, and our goal is to share and use our farm environment in a way that enables our participants to develop their skills through our programs and services while at the same time emotionally enriching them.”

The Mayfield home sits on 3 acres, and the hands-on programs are conducted on the bottom third of the property, she said.

In the organic gardening class participants learn how to prepare soil, and how to grow and maintain crops, including vegetables, grapes and flowers. They also learn how to harvest their bounty, but more importantly they learn the business of farming, including packaging, marketing and selling their homegrown goods to local restaurants and other markets.

The animal husbandry program helps young adults learn how to provide care to animals. Besides feeding and grooming the animals, they are taught how to maintain horse riding gear, clean the barn and restock feed.

Since many adults with disabilities have become accustomed to being cared for by family members, teachers, doctors and others, the opportunity to trade roles and become a caregiver themselves boosts their confidence and self-esteem, Mayfield said.

The culinary program teaches cooking and food preparation skills that can help participants land work in a restaurant.

“They work in groups and learn about preparing snacks and meals for larger groups of people,” Mayfield said.

Participants also learn the art of cooking desserts and the business of selling their baked goods to farmers markets and stores.

Former Sumac Elementary School Principal Karen Hansen is involved with the group.

“My husband, Steve, and I were looking for volunteer opportunities, and he found Farming Independence was looking for a webmaster,” Hansen said. “He set up their website and in so doing had many conversations with Sheila. . . . The more I heard of their objectives and got to know Sheila, the more I decided I wanted to be involved in this adventure.”

Hansen said students with disabilities often lack social skills that help them interact with others.

“The program builds on the skills they have, gives them confidence in a small setting where they can meet success and helps them to find ways to use their interests to . . . be productive members of the community,” she said. “I believe it will be a very important step between the public school setting and finding employment.”

Hansen said one student who is autistic loves horses and is enrolled in an equine program at a junior college. The young man shares his skills with other students at the farm site.

“He has become a real leader in the group, something that most likely does not happen at his junior college classes filled with typical students,” Hansen said.

“I have another friend who has an older son on the (autism) spectrum who is a bagger at a grocery store,” Hansen said. “He is bright but lacks communication skills. Who knows what he might have attempted if those skills had been encouraged and developed more fully in a different setting. I believe Farming Independence meets a need in our community.”

The organization’s community outreach program offers workshops, forums and other programs to support the participants, their families and their community.

Mayfield said business and community members are welcome to speak to program participants about jobs, careers and other opportunities.

Many other skills are taught, including language and nonverbal communication, flexibility, cooperation, collaboration, social interaction skills, hygiene, self- advocacy and self-help skills.

“Finally, we include on-site experiences and field trips . . . to local businesses that might provide an eventual match to the skills and interests they are developing,” Mayfield said.

“Integrating our participants into the community is an essential part of our basic mission.”

For more information about programs or donations to Farming Independence, visit www.farmingindependence.org.

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