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Adapting to life on the farm with multiple sclerosis

Photos by Linda Geist Kim DaWaulter on her scooter
NEW LIFE: Through Missouri AgrAbility and its partners, Kim DaWaulter of Foristell provides fresh farm produce to St. Louis suburban residents.
AgrAbility helps a Missouri woman find new ways to keep farming.

By Linda Geist

Even the smallest of farm chores is a chore for Kim DaWaulter of Foristell.

DaWaulter needs a scooter to move around her small farm. Multiple sclerosis weakened her legs, but not her desire to farm. She has carried out her labor of love without complaint since 1988.

ADAPTING TO CHANGE: AgrAbility looks for ways to make traveling through Kim DaWaulter's greenhouse and around the farm easier for her.

Missouri AgrAbility Project (MAP) and Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VR) are helping her realize her dreams to support herself by providing farm-fresh food to people from nearby urban areas. Missouri AgrAbility is a program of University of Missouri Extension.

DaWaulter grows produce in a high tunnel and raises chickens for eggs on her 30-acre farm. A small shed serves as her store for home-canned jellies, pickles, apple butter, honey and hand-painted gourd birdhouses.

Visitors enjoy a menagerie of rescue animals and fowl. “Some people call this the crazy critter farm,” DaWaulter says. “There’s no telling what shows up on my doorstep.”

DaWaulter’s farm includes agritourism. Schoolchildren from suburban St. Louis clamor for a firsthand look at animals in serene pastures. She likes to show and tell where food comes from to those who are generations away from a farm.

What visitors don’t see are the painstaking efforts she makes to farm.

Daily life
DaWaulter carries water hoses for livestock and poultry on her scooter. She hoists buckets of feed for aging horses by a primitive pulley system. She hauls jugs of water and feed, one by one, to chickens, ducks and peacocks. Gates become difficult passages to animal areas.

Elvis, a wayward, lovable donkey, nudges his way to steal feed from a rescue horse. From her scooter, DaWaulter steers the donkey away with a garden rake so the horse gets his fair share. She gathers eggs with a golf ball-retriever that extends 15 feet from her scooter to the nest. She improvises to get the job done on her own.

Weather limits much of the farming to months when DaWaulter is able to use the scooter on dirt and gravel paths. Lack of electricity in the high tunnel confines work times to daylight hours when it is hot and humid.

She uses her time wisely, working around weather and health. “I like to stay busy,” she says.

Finding help
On occasion, DaWaulter reluctantly relies on friends, neighbors and her daughter, an architect who lives out of state.

She is a repeat customer of AgrAbility and VR. After she was diagnosed with MS, she received a scooter to help her move around the farm. An adapted tractor, portable buildings and ramps provided by VR help her continue farming.

KEEP MOVING: Much of Kim DaWaulter’s farm work is dependent upon weather conditions and sunlight. She uses a scooter to work in a greenhouse and to feed animals.

AgrAbility specialists use their expertise and experience to offer solutions to barriers both big and small. They show ways to work efficiently and smarter, not harder, to prevent secondary injuries and keep the farm economically viable.

New needs arise as DaWaulter’s MS progresses. Surgery for broken bones and a heart aneurysm ail her frail body. Good upper-body strength and a sense of humor remain.

Reneesha Auboug, an AgrAbility farm outreach worker with Lincoln University’s Innovative Small Farmers’ Outreach Program; Karen Funkenbusch, Missouri AgrAbility's director; and MU health interns and consultants are part of the AgrAbility team helping DaWaulter.

After conducting on-farm assessments, the team makes recommendations to partner agencies. For DaWaulter, these might include self-watering and self-feeding poultry equipment, concrete pathways, electricity in the high tunnel, trenched water lines, and spigots and energy-free waterers on concrete pads. The AgrAbility team will suggest ways to improve safety and efficiency on her road to health and wealth.

“Kim DaWaulter’s disability will not extinguish her spark of life and love for farming,” Auboug says. “She is a hard worker, has a cheerful heart and is determined to face and endure whatever obstacles come her way.”

Missouri AgrAbility helps DaWaulter and others overcome those obstacles. “For farmers or ranchers who have an illness or disability, AgrAbility helps them cope and keep on farming,” Auboug says. “It brings me joy to connect small farm families with the light at the end of the tunnel and provide hope.”

Geist is a senior information specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. She writes from Columbia.

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