COLUMBIA — A winding driveway off New Haven Road in south Columbia ends at an empty field.
A sign between the driveway and the field reads "Visitor Education Complex" — but there is no complex.
The field is the planned site of a visitors center for Jefferson Farm and Gardens. Construction is postponed indefinitely because of economic difficulties that have delayed the project for nearly three years.
Despite these setbacks, the farm has decided to move forward and open its gates for a Kid's Day on Saturday and regular admission Mondays and Wednesdays, starting next week.
Jefferson Farm and Gardens, owned and operated by the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute, is a working, educational farm. In the past, it only opened for scheduled educational tours and demonstrations on the grounds, which include the MFA Children's Barn, a 7-acre man-made lake, fields of crops, gardens and a wildflower field.
The farm was founded in 2006. Using federal grants, private donations and money from the stimulus package, the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute, a nonprofit organization geared toward education, leased the 67 acres from MU.
The institute serves farmers, teaching them how to increase their crop diversity. It also educates youth and urban residents on contemporary farming and the values of alternative crops.
After building the barn, lake and garden areas, the organization planned to construct a greenhouse and visitors center so the operation could offer educational exhibits year-round.
Jerry Nelson, president and CEO of the board for the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute, said it's important to have an indoor facility aside from the barn to fulfill the farm's educational purpose.
"There are some things we can't do (outside) because of inclement weather," he said. "We're really limited to the summer."
When the economy took a downturn in 2008, so did financing for the greenhouse and the visitors center.
The center, a $2 million project, was counting on assistance from a federal stimulus package, but funding was denied, Nelson said.
The farm is just able to cover its operating expenses — maintaining the barn and land, feeding the animals and paying the four-person staff.
Funding comes from three government grants. Revenue from the grants, as well as donations, totals $200,000 to $225,000, which meets the cost of running the farm, Nelson said.
Even without an indoor educational facility, Nelson said as many as 12 new learning stations have been added to teach visitors about subjects such as wetlands and soil.
Horticulture Specialist Catherine Bohnert said the farm has also become an important educational tool for teaching the community about livestock. The MFA Children's Barn is home to a goat, a pony, a cow, a calf, sheep and a number of chickens.
It was Jefferson Farm and Garden's educational component that drew Amanda Gilbert, an agricultural education major at MU, to intern at the farm.
Gilbert said she was drawn by the hands-on experiences and the information she learned about new farming practices.
"It's important that we have a space for education," she said.
Nelson said he hopes growing attendance and awareness will encourage larger donations for the visitors center.
"We want to increase our visibility and build relationships with the public," Nelson said. "We want to help justify the center in the long term."
Saturday's Kid's Day is part of the plan. The farm is inviting families to participate in a variety of activities such as milking a cow, riding a pony and identifying types of fish and insects.
Admission is free for children ages 2 and younger, $4 for ages 3 to 12, $6 for adults and $5 for senior citizens.
"It's just a fun day at the farm and hopefully (kids) can learn a little something about agriculture," Bohnert said. "It provides a connection for the children and hopefully the parents."
Beginning Monday, the farm will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays. Starting in July, it will also be open Thursdays from 4 p.m. until sunset.
Regular admission is free for children ages 2 and younger, $3 for ages 3 to 12, $5 for adults and $4 for senior citizens.