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  • Kevin Elliott

Michele Smither

Life at Dutton Farm is a little different in Rochester for the 100 farmers each month who spend part of their days working at the non-profit organization that offers work and life-skill training to individuals with developmental problems.

Open to people in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties with physical, mental or emotional impairments, the farm provides vocational training, independent living training, recreational activities and advocacy for individuals with disabilities. Founded decades ago by Jim and Michele Smither, the farm was formalized by the couple and their daughter, Jeanette Brown, in honor of the couple's third daughter, Rebecca.

As a child with Down Syndrome, Michele said there weren't many places for young Rebecca to be involved after graduating from high school.

"We wanted her to be productive and for her life to have meaning," Smither said. "Trying to find things for our daughter to do when she graduated was really challenging."

The family quickly learned there were various jobs and opportunities for Rebecca at the farm. The work expanded into respite sessions for other special needs individuals in the tri-county area, eventually developing into a formal program in 2010. Today, about 100 farmers are in programs at the farm, which produces a variety of products, from specialty crops and honey to boutique-style hand soaps and lip balm, all of which are produced, packaged and sold by farmers at the farm.

"We just embraced the life that was before us. We are very strong in our faith, and in our family. We asked how this can be a blessing to us and to other people. We began to let school groups come in and children would come in during the day and have picnics... we saw how beneficial it was, and we decided to formalize it and make it a formal program," Smither said. "The farm had been up and running for a long time, but not formally. We had a respite where we had people with disabilities come in, where they could stay for a weekend or a week or whatever was needed."

Today, the farm has a waiting list for the first time for farmers who want to work at the farm in 2018.

"It's so busy because it's necessary," she said. "People with special needs need jobs and a place to go during the day."

Not only is the program busy, but life on the farm is busy. Products produced at Dutton Farm can be bought directly from the farm, or at one of several stores and shops in the greater Rochester area that carry products produced at the farm, including Busch's Fresh Food Market, mi State of Mind and other locations.

"Right now is a very busy time of year. The farm provides a place for employment and to be productive, which they can be," she said. "Everyone is welcome. It's up to us to find a place to fit. It's not up to you to fit into our program. Everyone can do something.

"We tend to get caught up in the production and efficiency of things to do with business in corporate America. Here, we focus on different things. We focus on quality, but we also focus on patience and being helpful to someone who maybe is having a hard time, and caring about people and their struggles. Efficiency and all of that is good, but it's not the most important thing."

Photo: Laurie Tennent

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