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Val Farmer, Published March 16 2012

Farmer: Helping farmers with disabilities to thrive

The column isn’t the only thing I’m stopping. I am also retiring from being a team member of the National AgrAbility Project Advisory Team. I have been a small part of this remarkable organization since the ’90s.

Because of this program, farmers and ranchers are no longer forced into retirement or into a disabled lifestyle because of disabilities. Nationally, there are at least

1 million to 2 million farmers and ranchers with disabilities. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 200,000 farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers acquire occupational injuries each year that limit their ability to perform essential work tasks.

Farm accidents are among the most prevalent workplace injuries. Other forms of disability are chronic respiratory problems, cardiovascular impairments and arthritis.

Finding hope. In a profession that depends on physical abilities and labor, one would surmise that these disabilities would be devastating and permanent, forcing people to abandon their goals, dreams and life work. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I was invited to be on the advisory team because of my background in rural mental health. True, there are aspects of rehabilitation that have to do with marital and family support, support networks, grief work, coping, resilience and attitude. What I found was a different story.

Hope and results don’t come from a counselor’s office, nor do they come from adapting to a new profession. Hope doesn’t come from a support group or even from a disability check. Hope comes from being able to farm or ranch again despite new limitations.

How does this happen? It happens because farmers are able to stay engaged in doing something they love and are good at. How can they do that? It is because of the miracle of agricultural engineering and assistive technology, along with worksite and home modifications. The best vocational rehabilitation and occupational therapists connect farmers with the tools they need to continue to be productive and independent.

These assistive technologies are applied to tractors, combines and other self-propelled farm machinery, farm vehicles, farm shops, personal mobility, alternative enterprises and specialized equipment.

The right assistive technology tools can give farmers back their mobility and control. This can be expensive but it is also inexpensive compared to a lifetime of dependence, disability and other forms of rehabilitation services, including counseling.

After a disabling injury or onset of a chronic disease, farmers need to know the miracles available to them through assistive technology. They need outreach, mentors and a quick response for their new limitations. The National AgrAbility Project or the 25 State AgrAbility Projects can help provide the resources and links they need to infuse hope back into their lives.

All farmers need is to see something work, and then they can believe it. They see an idea and they take it from there. What they don’t invent or jerryrig on their own, they buy. The best investment a vocational rehabilitation service can provide is an investment in assistive technology or worksite modification, and farmers can continue to be entrepreneurs, taxpayers and independent of government assistance.

Farmers and ranchers are the dream clientele for this kind of help because they are motivated. They don’t easily succumb to victim entitlement or institutional thinking. If you are looking for a program with success stories, this is it.

Farmers with disabilities share their stories. One of those men is Herbert Von Holten from Round Grove, Ind. He is a no-nonsense guy with no use of his legs. He, along with his partner, Kathleen Smith, engineers, manufactures and installs lifts adapted to tractors and other farm equipment.

Not only does he show farmers how they can still farm, but he provides the tough love to get them out of their self-pity and despair. His track record in counseling farmers is probably better than mine.

AgrAbility will put farmers in touch with inspirational farmers with disabilities who are doing as much or more with their lives than before their disabling accident.

An inspired leader. I want to end this unabashed puff piece on AgrAbility with a few words about Bill Field, Breaking New Ground project director.

Bill has been the visionary driving force behind this work from its inception in 1991. He is personable, friendly and as down-to-earth a man as you would want to meet. He is and has been my friend. He cares about farmers with disabilities.

Because of his leadership, AgrAbility is being spread internationally. He has touched thousands of lives through his work – and he isn’t done yet. When he retires, I will be one of those writing a protest letter.


Visit www.argrability.org, call (800) 825-4264, email agrability@agrability.org, or visit www.youtube.com/ user/NationalAgrAbilty to view “AgrAbility: It’s About Hope.”

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website.