CHILLICOTHE — The Hollywood version of our story would begin with Jim Sniff sipping a beer after a hot day of work at Blue Ridge Community Farm, about four miles northwest of Chillicothe. Jim would be gazing at the western horizon from atop a spot his family calls Sunset Hill, because you won’t find a better midwestern sunset than right there. And his inner voice would whisper: “Alpine Valley.”
With a vision of the famed Wisconsin outdoor music venue in his head, Jim would then clear the curved hillside of all that pasture grass. He would ask his daughter, Allison, to crank up a battery-powered speaker at the bottom of the hill. Jim would stand at the top and listen as the surrounding trees funneled beautiful, acoustically perfect music up to his ears and soul.
Then he would build a stage at the bottom of the hill. And people would come. And there would be an annual series of free concerts for families to enjoy. And the people would be so moved they would stuff fistfuls of money into boxes, happily donating to the mission of the not-for-profit Blue Ridge Community Farm.
That would be Hollywood’s version. It would also be 100 percent true. Every single word. Well, almost.
BEFORE THE BEGINNING
The real story started some 20 years ago, when Jim and Laura Sniff’s first child, Jimmy, was diagnosed with autism. Overall shortcomings in services – especially funding and opportunities for young people with disabilities as they age into adulthood – spurred the Sniffs to advocacy and beyond.
Jimmy, now 23, was three years old when a local teacher asked about a class field trip to the farm. A light bulb moment.
More field trips followed. Today, Blue Ridge Community Farm works with 50 area schools, social agencies and group homes, hosting upwards of 1,500 visitors each year, most with special needs. Visitors can interact with 33 animals – a mix of alpacas, donkeys, chickens, dogs and a horse. The farm stages social events and offers camping and hiking trails.
On its 245 acres, Blue Ridge also grows corn and beans, in addition to operating two grow houses that help support another not-for-profit enterprise run by the Sniffs.
Last fall, they purchased Picket Fence Floral, Gift and Garden Center, a popular store in Chillicothe. This acquisition was the result of another Sniff vision.
Jim has worked in real estate investment and property management for 40 years, and the Sniffs run an apartment complex adjacent to Picket Fence. Some of the units are purposefully rented to adults with disabilities, and what they saw in Picket Fence was opportunity.
“These kids have so much talent, but sadly, 80 percent of them graduate to nothing,” Jim said. “Picket Fence went up for sale, and we thought: What if we could take a well-known, profitable enterprise, turn it into a not-for-profit and offer training and employment opportunities for the special needs community?”
“The opportunities for people with special needs are sadly limited,” Laura says. “So many times, they are relegated to food service or janitorial positions. Here, they can learn to plant and grow, to greet customers, to run a cash register and learn life skills.”
The Sniffs spent nearly two years raising money to purchase the business, which, like Blue Ridge Community Farm, is now a 501(c)(3) charitable organization: Picket Fence Foundation.
The operation employs about 20 people, pursuing a goal to fill half the positions with people who have disabilities, be they developmental, physical or intellectual. Additional part-time job opportunities in animal care, gardening, trail maintenance and mechanics are planned for the farm. But the reach into the special-needs community goes beyond the store and farm payrolls.
When you walk into Picket Fence, the first display is the Ability Marketplace. The shelves are lined with goods made by the store’s special needs business partners. There are candles, quilts, picture frames, jewelry, paintings, scented soaps, greeting cards and more.
The Sniffs take no salary from the farm or garden center. Aside from meeting payroll obligations and operational costs, all proceeds from the Picket Fence and Blue Ridge operations go back into providing opportunities for the special needs population.
That includes the money raised by the Blue Ridge Community Farm concert series.
‘A GOD THING’
When Jim got the idea for a music event at the farm, he was referred to Jerry Kolb, a Peoria-area music promoter. Jim walked Jerry to the top of Sunset Hill.
“This really feels like a mini-Alpine Valley,” Jerry said. Jim froze and looked at him. “Had to be a God thing,” Laura said.
They arranged a trial run. Jerry lined up two bands, The Deep Hollow and Roundstone Buskers, and got local musician Sarah Marie Dillard to be the host emcee. Due to the pandemic, they limited the audience so the “crowd” numbered only 53 on the first Sunday of October, 2020. But the experience was convincing.
“They proved it was a great place for music,” Jerry says.
He re-upped Sarah as the house emcee and set up four shows in 2021. The headliners included The Accidentals, The Deep Hollow, Good Morning Bedlam and Chicago Farmer. Local singer-songwriter artists agreed to opening sets. The season finale drew an estimated 700 people.
Admission is free, though donations are encouraged. No concessions are sold; it’s BYO food and drink.
“I really like the idea of it being free,” Jerry says. “That way you can decide the value you want to place on it and to what degree you want to support Blue Ridge, which is significant. We had to empty the donation box halfway through the last show because people couldn’t stuff any more money into it.”
Another season is lined up for 2022, beginning in early September. Individual and business sponsorship opportunities are available, and vendors with special needs are welcome to sell their goods.
The absence of artificial lighting necessitates daytime events. The need to avoid midsummer heat pushes the schedule into late summer and early fall. But there’s no urgency to expand the schedule or add nighttime shows. The Sniffs like the family-friendly vibe of Sunday afternoons at the farm, with music lovers ranging from toddlers to folks in their 90s and even some Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis.
This way, too, nobody loses sight of the real reason for it all.
“We can’t solve all the world’s problems,” Jim says. “But we can give some people a little hope, let them know they’re loved and cared for in a safe environment and that they can shine, too.”
Kirk Wessler is a former newspaper sports editor who
has turned his attention in semiretirement to a
new passion as a singer/songwriter.
2022 Blue Ridge Community Farm Concert Series
- Roundstone Buskers
- The Accidentals
- Emily the Band
- Chicago Farmer & The Field Notes
- Mama Said String Band
- Still Shine
- Elizabeth Moen
- The Deep Hollow
- Good Morning Bedlam
- Stone and Snow
- Mary Erlewine