Returning disabled farmers and ranchers to agriculture through AgrAbility
William Meyers was 21 years old when he had his accident. The single vehicle rollover – he was driving home late from work at the local farm co-op – broke his back in three places and left him paralyzed from the T4 vertebrae down.
It was March 2015 and Meyers had recently graduated from junior college, returned home, and bought a house and farm of his own near his family’s farm, feedlot and cow-calf operation near Palmer, Neb. The youth in the prime of his life, used to working 60-70 hours at his full-time job then putting in an additional 30-40 hours per week on the farm, was suddenly sitting in a hospital room all day – doing nothing, unable to walk.
“The first thing was I just needed to know I could do something,” said Meyers. “I thought of our lawn mower – I figured I could probably drive that.
“But it was definitely a downer. I just sat there thinking, ‘How am I going to do all of these things I have to do?’”
Two weeks into his stay at the rehabilitation hospital in Lincoln, Neb., he got a surprise visit from Rod Peterson, rural rehabilitation specialist for Nebraska AgrAbility.
“[Rod] told me about the AgrAbility program, and all these things they could help provide to people in agriculture who had disabilities like mine,” said Meyers. “I had no idea the program even existed before.”
According to Paul Jones, project manager for National AgrAbility, the program is about “improving quality of life for anybody involved in agriculture production with any impairment that keeps them from doing their job the way they want to do it.”
AgrAbility works with people involved in all types of agriculture, including livestock and dairy production, hydroponics, traditional farming, agriculture such as vegetable planting in urban areas and other types as well.
While the program is often thought to only help people with major physical disabilities, that is not always the case. AgrAbility also provides assistance to veterans who are returning to agriculture and people who suffer from behavioral and mental health issues as well.
“The word disability conjures up different ideas,” Jones explained. Instead of focusing on certain disabilities, the program addresses a “whole spectrum of what you might call functional limitations.”
These limitations might include back pain, arthritis, visual impairment, paraplegia, PTSD, and many other conditions.
“Arthritis and back issues are very common, but people might not consider themselves disabled,” Jones said. The program offers many resources and links to assistive technologies available for all types of limitations and disabilities.
Their website has a database of over 1,400 products that could be of use for people with limitations under the “The Toolbox Assistive Technology Database” tab.
To get become involved in the program, interested persons must first get in contact with AgrAbility through their website or the state’s program employees.
After contact, AgrAbility sends an employee to make home visits to see what kind of assistive technology would best improve the person’s day to day lives.
At these visits, the case worker will visit with as many family members as possible to get a fully-informed grasp of each person’s unique needs and how their limitation has affected the rest of the family.
Following this report, AgrAbility helps the person with the disability get involved with the vocation rehabilitation system in their state, veteran’s administration, or other community and state rehab resources and shares their assistive technology recommendations with those programs.
In Meyers’ case, the team worked together to identify three key items that would help him continue his daily work. A lift for his pickup transports him from his driver’s seat to his feed truck, tractor, combine and other equipment. “I use it every day,” said Meyers. “I bet that thing swings around 10-20 times a day.” He also received an all-terrain wheelchair with tracks that can withstand sand and mud, and an adaptive saddle that puts him back on a well-broke horse so he can check pens, gather and help brand. Similar in most ways to a standard saddle, the difference is a specialized, tall cantle with a wide leather strap that wraps around to secure the torso. “It’s nice because it gets me back on a horse,” said Meyers. “Even if I can’t go running and gunning like I used to.”
For Dustin Franklin, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and compressed discs in his back threatened to end his custom hay-cutting business.
He said, “It was a life changing decision—do you keep doing this or do you try to figure out something else to do?”
Thanks to the Colorado AgrAbility project, in partnership with the state’s vocational rehabilitation program, Franklin was able to continue operating his haying equipment with modifications such as extended mirrors, automatic hitches, a lift table, and air-ride swivel seats.
Franklin first heard about AgrAbility through an interview on a radio station. Although he was dealing with back and arthritis issues, he was skeptical about contacting them.
Once he did, he attended a workshop put on by Colorado AgrAbility that explained what the program does and then specifically addressed a topic to show the different tools and assistive technology available to make jobs easier.
He explained that while AgrAbility couldn’t fund the assistive technology that he needed, they made visits to his operation, generated recommendations, and proved that he needed certain assistive technologies which were then funded through the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
The products that Franklin received have not only improved his life, but the lives of his wife, Barb, and their daughter, both of whom assist in the family business.
Along with finding technologies to help the Franklins stay in agriculture, the family also found community within the program.
“Once you’re in the program, they always want to check in and make sure you’re alright,” he explained.
For the past two years Dustin, Barb, and their daughter have served on the National Advisory Committee for AgrAbility.
Barb Franklin explained that by being on the committee “you get more information than if you were on the outside of it. You get to realize how it all happens and who all is involved to keep it running.”
The family has also attended multiple national conferences which include different workshops, updates on the Farm Bill, and tours to people’s operations who have been helped by AgrAbility. The conference’s location switches from state to state each year and is attended by people from across the country.
Michael Bolte, who operates a cow/calf and farming operation in Jewell, Kansas, is another individual whose life was greatly improved by AgrAbility.
In the early 2000s Bolte was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Physical limitations threatened to change his lifestyle, but Bolte wanted to stay a part of his family’s operation.
“Agriculture was the only thing I knew,” he said.
Bolte also wanted to continue the family’s business alongside of his wife, Rebecca, so that his son, Marcus, would have the opportunity to be the fourth generation on the place.
While he didn’t know about AgrAbility at first, a neighbor’s son who had learned about the program in college, recommended their services to Bolte.
“The experience [with AgrAbility] has been very helpful—it’s a good program,” he said.
Because MS is progressive, AgrAbility continues to work with him to incorporate new technologies as needed. The first technologies Bolte received were hand clutches in his tractors and two mounted cable lifts on a tractor and a combine to help him get into his equipment.
“If I can get into a tractor or run machinery, I’m as happy as can be,” Bolte said.
The latest piece of assistive technology is a Life Essentials chair lift that is mounted on a trailer and controlled by him which allows him to get into tractors, combines, skid steers, and pickups.
Along with continuing to farm, Bolte also uses a scooter and hydraulic squeeze chute to work the cattle side of his business as well.
Funding & History
AgrAbility is funded through the USDA and consists of a National AgrAbility Project, which is located at Purdue, and 20 State/Regional AgrAbility Projects.
Because there are only 20 funded slots, states must apply for highly competitive 4-year grants.
Each State/Regional AgrAbility Project (SRAP) must partner with a land grant university and at least one non-profit organization that helps with disabilities such as Goodwill, Easter Seals, Centers for Independent Living, the Arthritis Foundation, and many others.
In the past, South Dakota has held an AgrAbility Grant but hasn’t for the last few years. This year, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana are applying for open slots within the program.
For the people in states that don’t have an AgrAbility program, they can contact the National AgrAbility Project (NAP) at Purdue who can then refer them to their state’s vocational rehabilitation system, veteran’s administration, and other programs within their state.
The NAP also supports the State AgraAbility Projects by finding resources, hosting national conferences, and having webinars.
AgrAbility is not the first program of its kind. Some of the first programs to help farmers started after the World Wars.
These programs were important for farmers coming back from the war as more of the population was involved in agriculture at that time in history.
Throughout the years there have been a few distinct events that have led to AgrAbility as we know it today.
In 1979 Purdue University got a unique call. On the line was a farmer who had been injured in a roll-over accident and was looking for a way to get back into agriculture as a paraplegic.
At that time, no one knew how to handle the call.
To help the man, William Field, a Purdue professor in agricultural engineering, got a group of students together and devised a lift so that the farmer could continue to operate his farm equipment.
What Field and the students started, grew into Purdue’s Breaking New Ground Outreach Program.
Other programs began sprouting up in other states and in the late 1980s there was a push to expand programs like Purdue’s through the USDA.
In 1990, AgrAbility was created through the Farm Bill. That same year Congress also passed the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Even though the program is funded through the USDA, there is always question whether it will exist from year to year.
For people like Meyers, Franklin and Bolte, the program is the difference between continuing a vocation and lifestyle they love, and adapting to an entirely different way of life.
It doesn’t solve every problem, but it does make it possible to stay active in agriculture, in spite of physical limitations.
“Every day I still come across things I wish I could do easier,” said Meyers. “But I can do almost everything I used to do – things just take a lot longer and a lot more time. I’ve been able to overcome, adapt and adjust. I can’t look back – hindsight is 20/20 – I have to keep moving forward. I’ve always had that attitude from day one. There wasn’t much else you could do.”