James Weber might never get the assistive technologies he believes could help him continue to farm despite his disabilities, but the Crawford County, Wis., farmer isn’t about to give up without a fight.
Weber has been haggling with Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation officials for about a year and a half, seeking help from an agency that in the past provided hundreds of farmers with funds for four-wheelers, tractor lifts, automated milking equipment and other items designed to help farmers with disabilities. Weber has nerve damage in his right shoulder from a work-related injury about 10 years ago and a broken ankle suffered in 2019, but he would like to continue farming.
For many years, the DVR partnered with Easter Seals Wisconsin and the AgrAbility of Wisconsin program to help farmers with physical challenges to continue farming. A DVR policy change about four years ago has reduced the amount of services offered, however.
Jeff Kratochwill (pictured), director of the Easter Seals FARM Program — short for Farm Assessment and Rehabilitation Methods — says the implementation of DVR’s new policy toward farmers “has had a seriously negative effect on farmers with disabilities receiving any assistance from DVR.”
Kratochwill says the number of referral requests from DVR for farm assessments four years ago was 180. This year, there have been five referrals.
DVR relies on FARM Program staff to assess a farmer’s situation and make recommendations on what assistive technologies might help make him or her more successful.
One of the biggest hurdles for farmers has been a relatively new three-year look-back policy that requires existing farmers seeking financial assistance to show they made at least a minimum wage for each of the previous three years. Weber and other farmers applying for help say their disabilities often make it difficult for them to clear that hurdle.
Members of the AgrAbility of Wisconsin Advisory Council discussed the DVR issue during a recent council meeting. AgrAbility of Wisconsin is a partnership between University of Wisconsin-Extension and Easter Seals Wisconsin, trying to connect farmers with disabilities with the services they need.
Since 1991, more than 2,500 farmers have been able to continue farming or return to the farm work site through AgrAbility of Wisconsin intervention. The program is one of the most successful of its kind in the U.S., and education and outreach services are still being offered despite the DVR policy limitations.
Weber contacted Kratochwill in the spring of 2019 to see if he might receive assistance from the FARM Program or DVR. His farming situation was evolving, as he was going through a divorce and changing farm locations and operation types. He is developing a calf-feeding operation and says he needs assistive technologies to help in his daily routine.
“[DVR] basically refused my application because of the three-year minimum wage requirement,” Weber says. DVR officials told him they might be able to consider an application as a startup business because his operation was changing and at a new location.
“They keep telling me I’m getting help, and I don’t get help,” Weber says. “It’s psychological warfare.
“I’m hard-headed — I’m not giving up. This is the government agency that is there to help people with disabilities be more viable. It’s hard enough as a farmer to ask for help in the first place without having to continue to beg for something.”
Weber says he doesn’t know if he will ever get help, but he hopes that bringing attention to the problem might help someone else in the future.
“If this is a problem for me, there are 30 other people out there just like me,” he says. “[DVR officials] spent more money fighting this than they would have by just helping me in the first place.”
A 27-page case activity report lists at least eight DVR employees who have been involved in reviewing Weber’s case in the past 18 months.
When asked about the status of Weber’s application, Alaina Knief, a communications specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, says DWD and DVR officials are “not allowed to comment on [Weber’s] case beyond the case notes provided.”
Kratochwill says he has been notified that DVR officials plan to meet in December with Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection officials and others to determine whether the policy might be revised to help more farmers.
Barrier for farmers
Paul Leverenz (pictured), former director of the FARM Program and president and CEO of Easter Seals Wisconsin since September, says the DVR policy change “has created a real barrier” for farmers with disabilities to access the assistive technologies they need.
“Randy Romanski [Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture designee] has continued to shepherd this, and there are a couple people on the Easter Seals board who continue to keep this issue alive,” Leverenz says. Officials at the national level also have questioned the policy change.
“With all of these pieces working together, I really believe they’re moving toward making a change,” Leverenz says. “All of the efforts are starting to pay some dividends. At least we’re starting to see the crop mature. We don’t know what kind of yield there will be yet.”
Kratochwill says the FARM Program will do its best to work with DVR officials while continuing to share concerns about program limitations.
“Seeing farmers not being helped sticks with you,” he says.
Massey lives near Barneveld, Wis.