As the face of America continues to evolve, sometimes it can be easy to forget those who aren’t always at the forefront of our thoughts. For example, the CDC notes that 11.1% of U.S. adults have a mobility disability with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs. Another 10.9% have a cognition disability with serious difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions. When possible, these people deserve to be able to enjoy farm visits too.

The topic of “Planning for Accessibility and Inclusion” was discussed in depth at the most recent Great Lakes Expo, with Mary Rottschafer from Critter Barn in Zeeland, MI, taking the lead. Critter Barn is dedicated to teaching about farming and agriculture through hands-on experiences and inspiring children of all ages and all abilities through the miracles in creation found at a farm.

Rottschafer got into farming by buying just three acres with some old dairy barns. Six years later the land became a farm. In its 32nd year, it comprised 27 acres.

“In 2017 I was given 36 acres to build a new farm,” Rottschafer said. “But I spoke to teachers at Ottawa Area Center [Schools] and found there were no farms in the area where they could take special needs students.” To overcome that, Rottschafer found a provider of equipment for those with physical mobility issues – Rifton Adaptive Equipment. She wanted to do more than just provide chairs and bikes, though.

“With our new farm design, the pathways are huge,” she said, to help accommodate those using adaptive equipment. In total, there will be 28 buildings, all connected by the sidewalk, which she has dubbed “The Golden Mile.”

Rottschafer’s plan came together after looking at the Global Universal Design Commission and working with Michael Perry of Progressive AE to design the new farm. Perry’s passion with Universal Design is centered on designing spaces where everyone is given what they need to succeed by eliminating physical and social barriers allowing individuals with diverse abilities to flourish.

“Anywhere from 10% to 20% of the population has a disability of some kind,” Rottschafer reiterated. “Anything from not seeing certain colors to trouble with handles to moving over difficult terrain – anything could be an obstacle to a full experience.”

The new Critter Barn design follows Universal Design principles:

  • Equitable use which provides the same means of use for all users, encouraging inclusion and lessening stigma. Example: One gently sloped ramp entrance used by everyone vs. a ramp and stairs, which segregates users.
  • Flexibility in use which accommodates all by offering choices for users (such as an adjustable desk).
  • Simple and intuitive use which eschews complexity while ensuring all users can understand how to use or operate something (for example, pictograms in place of written information).
  • Perceptible information which allows all users to access information, regardless of ability, experience or literacy.
  • Tolerance for error which minimizes hazards and the consequences of mistakes (such as a door that shuts slowly).
  • Low physical effort which requires little effort to use (like a lamp that can be turned off by just a touch).
  • Size and space for approach and use which provides easily navigable space and allows all users to reach and manipulate objects (such as countertops of varying heights).

“It’s anything we can do to help everyone feel included and important,” Rottschafer said. “Stop and think about how this could apply to your place.”

The question many farmers will ask is “Is it worth it to invest in accessibility design for visitors?” It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It’s not just serving the person with special needs, though,” Rottschafer pointed out. “It’s their parents, siblings, teachers and everyone who cares for them.”

She said if you can’t do the big things, balance what you can do at your barn, even if it’s just signage. “There may not be a lasting financial gain but your reputation and your compassion goes a long way,” she added.

Critter Barn’s revenue comes from field trips and its Critter Camps. Program revenue is about 30% of their income; their “traveling farm” brings in another 30%. They have a public admission fee for visitors and sell some merchandise. It is a working farm where they raise animals for meat and eggs, and they’re working on becoming a dairy.

For anything above and beyond, Rottschafer looks for grants. Her tip when applying for grants: “Don’t explain what you already do. State what your problem is and what the solution can be and explain what you need.”

Making your farm more accessible doesn’t just serve the person with special needs – it’s also for their parents, siblings, teachers and everyone who cares for them.

Taking on the subject of “Providing Accessibility Beyond Physical Needs” were Phil and Sarah Hallstedt of Hallstedt Homestead Cherries and Flowers in Northport, MI. Their long story short: The couple had never farmed before and spent four years doing cover crops before planting thousands of cherry trees. They started selling them wholesale before transitioning to direct shipped and U-pick, with a focus on community and experience. They added their flowers in 2017 and now grow 12 varieties of sweet cherries.

To Sarah, access means sharing the land such that each person feels valued and safe, and thus able to relax and enjoy their time at their farm. Joy means being joyful and sharing that joy with all that visit and experience the orchard and flower farm with us.

She said, “In August 2021, Paul from Boston wanted to see the orchard. He loved our fresh-shipped cherries and asked if he could visit.”

Phil noted that Paul is legally blind. He brought a guide with him who took the time to explain everything the orchard had to offer, and when they were done, Paul said he saw nothing and experienced everything. “We asked what we could do to make that experience better, and that started us on our journey,” Phil said.

The questions they asked included how do we share access and joy with everyone? Who can help us? What can we do? What could we learn from visitors with different sensory abilities?

Sarah and Phil put a lot of emphasis on their values – respecting the land, expanding access to that land and especially finding joy in what they do and offer. “Our motivation was our values,” Phil stated. “This cannot be economically motivated.”

When finding ways to be more inclusive, they noted that there is lots of information available – such as through Centers for Independent Living for each state. It’s also important to acknowledge what you don’t know.

Remember that a uniform approach does not exist; each person will have unique and special needs. You do not know someone else’s needs or how to fulfill them. Be confident enough to ask – and seek experts to assist you.

“Take baby steps – update your signage, and remember that words matter – ‘see our orchard’ versus ‘experience our orchard,’” Phil said. “And think about how your staff can be trained too.”

Sarah encouraged other farmers to think about the five senses and how they might all be stimulated, such as with a holiday decoration. It could involve the scent and feel of pine boughs, the sound of jingle bells (and the taste of sharing some candy).

They’re adding blossom tours in spring, because it’s a vivid sensory experience and it can be an additional revenue option too.

Steps forward to make your farm more accessible:

  1. Become aware – What do guests need to experience on the farm?
  2. Engage – Recognize each person’s unique needs.
  3. Implement – Develop programming that benefits all five senses.
  4. Improve – Engage a steering team of audience and experts.

by Courtney Llewellyn