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AgrAbility helps Wisconsin farmers deal with disabilities

Farming is a dangerous business, perhaps the most dangerous business. It has the highest disabling rate of any industry: 120,000 people who work in ag production sustain disabling injuries every year (National Safety Council, 2002). Annually in Wisconsin alone, 4,000 people are injured or disabled on the farm. The injuries result from tractor overturns, machinery entanglements, electrocution, chemical exposures and animal incidents.

But that doesn”t mean the end of farming as a way of life and business venture. AgrAbility of Wisconsin, housed in the Ag Engineering Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a partnership between the UW Cooperative Extension Service and Easter Seals Wisconsin. It provides resources to farmers with disabilities who want to continue farming.

AgrAbility of Wisconsin is one of 24 state/regional projects administered by the USDA-Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service. These projects, housed at land-grant universities from California to Vermont, partner with private nonprofit disability service organizations, such as the Arthritis Foundation, Easter Seals or independent living centers, providing education and assistance to farmers with disabilities. USDA-CSREES awards funds to individual states through competitive grants.

Since 2000, UW-Madison has also been the home of the National AgrAbility Project, which provides training, technical assistance and resources for the state/regional projects. It is directed by Ron Schuler, professor and machinery specialist in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

Schuler, who grew up on a dairy farm north of Milwaukee, knows how dangerous farming can be. Two of his clients through AgrAbility of Wisconsin have been familiar faces-a first cousin and a high school classmate. Although most of the clients are men, Schuler estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent are women.

AgrAbility of Wisconsin accommodates a variety of cognitive, physical and sensory disabilities. The disabilities include amputations, arthritis, cardiac conditions, and diabetes. Other health conditions that the organization has dealt with include hearing loss, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and visual impairment.

Self-reliant, hard-working, stoic-farmers are not people who typically seek help in any circumstance. Schuler had one client, a dairy farmer in his late fifties, who had such severe back problems he could no longer carry milk buckets. He had contacted an auctioneer to sell his farm when he found about AgrAbility of Wisconsin.

“Once he got help-he got a pipeline into the barn-it made all the difference,” Schuler says. “Once they get to a certain stage, they start looking for ways to continue farming and will consider alternatives.”

Those alternatives range from the use of assistive technology to changing practices, going from dairying to pasturing or to another animal enterprise, such as raising calves or beef cattle.

Schuler recounts the story of a female farmer from Pardeeville who was impaired by a joint disorder. She transitioned from milking cows to raising calves and llamas. She now sells the llama wool and is proud of the wool hat she recently fashioned from it. Working with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, AgrAbility was able to help her add some steps in her barn and purchase a wool carding machine.

Other assistive technology devices include lifts for tractors, automatic hitching systems, push or powered feed carts, and ergonomic tractor seats and hand tools. One of the more common “tools” that helps farmers impaired by arthritis or who have limited mobility (the two most common disabling conditions AgrAbility deals with) are utility vehicles. These versatile vehicles cut down on the amount of walking farmers have to do to get around their property and help them negotiate hilly or uneven terrain.

Mary Dunn, manager of Dunndale Swiss Farm, a 220-acre Brown Swiss operation near Mineral Point, was able to continue farming, even though arthritis had progressed to her feet, knees, back, hips and shoulders. Through AgrAbility and its partners, she was outfitted with two push feed carts, an electric feed cart, and an automated feeding system. She now has extended steps and handrails for her tractors and a John Deere Gator utility vehicle. A “creative thinker,” Dunn now comes up with her own modifications and adaptations for her farm equipment and operation.

AgrAbility relies on home visits to assess the needs of individual farmers.That”s where Easter Seals comes in. The Easter Seals Farm Assessment Rehabilitation Methods program provides a resource person who conducts the on-site visit, developing a plan with the farmer.

The resource person “looks at the tasks that need to be done and the assistance that is needed to accomplish them, either through assigning tasks to other workers or the use of assistive technology,” says Schuler. A plan is then developed. If equipment and accessories are needed, the farmer is referred to a counselor from the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Together the DVR and FARM staff help the farmer implement the steps in the plan.

The word about AgrAbility is spreading, Schuler says. AgrAbility of Wisconsin educates the public through displays at farm shows and fairs, community presentations and workshops, and through the media. Peer counselors, farmers who have been served by AgrAbility, add the personal touch, according to Schuler. They are ready at a moment”s notice to visit with a neighboring farmer, often sitting at the kitchen table, listening, encouraging and offering help and hope to an injured comrade. That”s what AgrAbility is all about.