Ferme Chillicothe, florist for people with special needs

CHILLICOTHE – Jim and Laura Sniff never intended to own a flower shop. They never intended to turn their farm into a concert hall.

Then again, when you have a child with autism, life can take you down unforeseen paths.

A few weeks ago, the Sniffs bought Picket Fence Floral, Gift and Garden Center in Chillicothe. They plan to use it as a source of employment for people with special needs, like their 22-year-old son Jimmy.

For nearly 20 years, the Sniffs have organized educational trips for these adults and children to their 245-acre farm northwest of Chillicothe. Starting Sunday, Blue Ridge Community Farm will be the site of a free concert series.

Performances featuring local and regional musicians are scheduled from four Sundays to October 3 in a natural amphitheater on the farm. Donations are for the benefit of the farm and the florist.

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Laura Sniff gives invisible maestro credit for all of this.

“God really orchestrated this whole mission,” she said earlier this week. “It wasn’t even on our radar two years ago. We didn’t even think we were going to buy a business.

“God kind of put all these pieces in front of us and said, ‘How can you not do that? “”

Almost like Julie Andrews in ‘Sound of Music’

When he first saw the Sniffs Farm, Jerry Kolb had a bit of the same feeling about concerts.

Former semi-retired executive of WTVP-TV (47) in Peoria, Kolb got to know the Sniffs through a friend whose son has Down’s syndrome. He had visited the Sniffs farm on a field trip.

Kolb also visited – last year, after the Sniffs suggested their broadcast could make a good gig site. After further consideration, Kolb agreed. He compared the hillside location to the Alpine Valley Music Theater, a renowned venue southwest of Milwaukee.

“It’s almost like Julie Andrews in ‘The Sound of Music’,” Kolb said of the Blue Ridge view. “You go up to the top of the hill and you look at this valley and you say, ‘Damn, this is going to be good’. “

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Kolb and the Sniffs performed a performance test last fall. It went well enough that they could promote a full-fledged concert series this year.

Scheduled artists include Cody Diekhoff, a native of Delavan, known professionally as the Chicago Farmer. Local musician Sarah Marie Dillard will host. The lineup should feature acts on the mellow side, which suits the venue, according to Kolb.

“These are not groups of headbangers,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a lovely little getaway in a unique setting.”

The working corn and soybean farm includes alpacas, donkeys and chickens. It was a retreat for Laura Sniff and her husband, who owns a real estate investment business in Peoria.

But Blue Ridge, which is registered as a non-profit entity, also serves as a safe haven for people with developmental disabilities.

About 1,500 adults and children visit the farm each year from May through October, according to Laura Sniff. They come from over 50 area school districts and Peoria organizations that help people with special needs, including EPIC and Community Workshop and Training Center.

“Animals don’t know they have a disability,” Kolb said of the visitors. “They just see them as a person. These people with disabilities just have this rare opportunity to have what we might think of as very normal interactions. “

Creation of a campus adapted to Chillicothe

The desire of the area’s special needs community to have other normal interactions is part of what prompted the Sniffs to purchase Picket Fence.

The store has been registered as a non-profit business. The Sniffs also arrange for Blue Ridge to receive donations on behalf of Picket Fence.

Laura Sniff said as her son grew older she became increasingly aware that employment opportunities for young adults like him were limited. Picket Fence aims to create jobs in its florist and greenhouse operations, as well as in its gift shop.

“It is possible to interact with the public in a safe environment and learn skills at your own pace,” Sniff said.

“I’ve always thought, ‘Why don’t we teach people with disabilities in high school and college to be entrepreneurs? So many families are starting businesses for children with disabilities because there are no jobs here.

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For the past 18 months or so, the Sniffs have been raising money to buy the store. They also followed the previous owners to find out how the store operates.

The goal is for people with developmental disabilities to one day make up 60 to 70 percent of the Picket Fence workforce, said Laura Sniff. Currently, Picket Fence has two part-time employees with special needs.

Ultimately, the Sniffs envision the Picket Fence property along Illinois Highway 29 as a place for people with special needs to work and reside, in adjacent apartments. If that happened, it would probably be music to Laura Sniff’s ears.

“What we’re trying to build is a safe campus,” she said. “Raising a child with severe disabilities is intimidating. But we are very passionate and really believe this is our calling.

Blue Ridge Fall Concert Series

The Blue Ridge Community Farm Fall Concert Series is scheduled to begin Sunday at the Farm, located at 21529 N. Blue Ridge Road, northwest of Chillicothe. Free entry. Donations are accepted. Performances start at 2 p.m. each day.

The artists are programmed as follows.

Sunday: The Accidentals, Cami Proctor, Emily Antonacci, Megan Maroney

September 19: The deep hollow, the stone and the snow

September 26: Hello Bedlam, Harvest Sons, Projekts

October 3: Chicago farmer, still brilliant

Sunday’s show could be moved to the Exhibition Gardens in Peoria if the weather turns inclement. Check the Blue Ridge Community Farm Facebook page for updates.

Nick in the morning


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