RIDGWAY — Exciting things are happening at Big Maple Family Farm.
In 2015, Amanda McMinn-Balon, the fifth generation to plant roots on the 117-year-old farm, established Big Maple Farm’s Natural Therapies there. It breathed new life into the aging farm.
The mission of the organization is to help enhance the average farm-goer, as well as those clients with mental health diagnoses, by increasing their independence and quality of life through animal interactions and therapeutic horticulture.
Located at 877 Long Level Road in Ridgway, the farm continues to grow and expand as this mission comes to life.
A grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Conservation Resource Service has allowed the farm to construct a high tunnel. With the help of a Leadership Elk County team of volunteers, the project will be completed for this growing season.
The high tunnel will be used by the farm’s newly formed 4-H Club and to educate school groups who come there to learn, but the goal is to have it be tended to by a therapeutic horticulture program.
“It’s a form of therapy that has been proven to work for veterans and those with post-traumatic stress disorder. Those in assisted living or with depression or who are on the autism spectrum,” Balon explained. “It creates a social atmosphere to learn and grow as they work together in groups.
“It also creates vocational skills.”
Those in the program will decided not only what to grow, but also the price it will be sold for at the farm’s roadside produce stand and what non-profit organization the group wants to donate the proceeds to.
It also received a grant for $36,000 for a rotational grazing system for its animals, as well as water lines and a walkway to reach those paddocks.
Within them are chicken, ducks, sheep, and horses which are used for therapeutic horseback riding lessons.
“This is used to enhance the conservation and preservation of the farm with the addition of the horses,” said Balon, adding that the local conservation district and NRCS are both working to ensure the animals have the proper amount of land to graze.
The non-profit currently has five full-time horse-assisted therapy students and are looking to double that amount in the coming months. It follows the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) standards and is working toward accreditation.
When asked why she chose this kind of work to be the legacy of her generation on the farm, Balon says simply and without hesitation, “I think helping people is important. I went to college to help animals but was really struck with the way animals help people.”
The outcomes she has seen drive her.
Many of the horse-assisted therapy sessions work with clients on the autism spectrum. And Balon is blown away by the impact a horse can have.
She recalls one rider who was completely non-verbal. They went from not being able to even use the reins to being able to ride and increasing their communication to do so.
Another rider on the autism spectrum willingly sets aside sensory issues because of his love for the horse.
In lessons, clients also learn core strength, dexterity, color, independence and confidence.
“The bond that they get with the horse is very important and helps them grow,” Balon said. “Our kids are capable of so much more than what we think they’re capable of.”
With four large horses and one mini, the hope is to add two more horses in the near future.
Young and old are also welcome to come for regular Western riding lessons.
The summer will bring day camps for kids of all abilities from 8-18 years old.
The seven members of its 4-H group, known as “The Animal Science Club,” are able to lease animals from the farm for a nominal fee and a commitment to come take care once a week.
“Our kids (in 4-H) will go above and beyond. They’ll come and help with sessions, and you’ll catch them mucking stalls,” Balon said with a smile. “That’s how we’re teaching our 4-H kids — leadership, respect and caring for others.”
But while the kids pitch in, Balon said one of the biggest hurdles the organization faces is a need for volunteers.
Volunteers are needed to help with group visits, summer camps, events, and side walking alongside lesson riders.
“We don’t ask for a huge commitment. One hour a week is all we look for,” Balon said. “There’s almost 100 kids that are planning on coming here this summer. To do that, we need some volunteers.”
But while growth has been a constant at the farm in the past two years, there’s more work to be done. The goal is to expand the barn to have safer horse stalls and a small indoor riding arena.
As the farm’s relationship to the public continues to grow, so does the family business.
The non-profit leases land from the family in exchange for being located there. With more time and energy being spent on the farm by the next generation, work is also being done to expand the farm fields and its flock of chickens and ducks, as well as herd of sheep, to be sold from farm to table.
More than a decade ago, to adapt to the economy, the McMinn family scaled their family farm back to part-time, raising small animals and growing potatoes and sweet corn.
“I’m the fifth generation here on the farm. To see all this going on is bringing the farm back to life,” Balon said. “It’s diverse, and people see how the family is changing things.”