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AgrAbility: assisting “physically limited” farmers

AgrAbility program works to find solutions for handicapped farmers. Program now in Arkansas.

Farmers will express irritation with markets, the weather and ag-related legislation. They will grouse about poor seed, poorly engineered equipment and poor service at the bank.

But rare is the farmer who openly complains about physical pain and handicaps. Stoicism and toughness are seemingly imbedded in growers’ DNA. The farmer knows there’s little point in whining about a broken hand, busted-up knee or chronic arthritis when the corn still needs to be harvested and the cattle need feeding.

But whether they are willing to speak of it, too many carry physical maladies that impact their ability to farm. And with the average age of the American farmer now well over 50 and climbing, the number of afflicted is only going to expand.

Whether farmers want to ask for help, or not, assistance to ease physical limitations is now available. Arkansas growers should know that through the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, the AgrAbility program recently arrived in the state.

For more on Mississippi’s AgrAbility program, see AgrAbility keeps farmer on farm

While USDA funds for AgrAbility, which began in 1991, are directed through each state’s Extension Service, no money is provided directly to growers. Instead, the AgrAbility program strives to find solutions – often already available commercially or, if not, designed and built for specific situations -- for farmers with physically limiting conditions.

In Arkansas “we have three partners,” says Jessica Vincent, who has been program coordinator since last summer. “First, the University of Arkansas Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department helps us with engineering device modifications and assistive technology solutions. Second, ICAN (Increasing Capabilities Access Network -- a special program of the Arkansas Department of Career Education Arkansas Rehabilitation Services Division) is our main assistive technology partner. Through ICAN we also are working with Arkansas Rehabilitation Services. Third, we work with the Arthritis Foundation Southeast Region” which covers Arkansas and Louisiana.

The Arkansas AgrAbility program kicked off last August.

“We’ve done a lot in the short time we’ve been active,” says Vincent.In the beginning, we put feelers out to the counties about the program’s start and said if there are any farmers in their area who have been impacted by an injury or health condition that limits their ability to be a productive farmer, to let us know. We’d love to see if they’d like to visit and see if we can help.”

The program’s first client, Jerry Gill, is a farmer from Alma in west Arkansas’ Crawford County. Some seven years ago, Gill had a four-wheeler accident that caused a lower- back injury. That injury has since proven physically taxing, having restricted his mobility and balance – the less walking or climbing, the better.

“He has trouble climbing stairs or getting in and out of his truck or tractor,” says Vincent.  That was readily apparent when “we went to his farm and followed him around to see exactly where he was having difficulties.”

One major issue involves Gill’s inability to easily mount his tractor.

“Getting in and out of the tractor is extremely difficult for him. After a couple of hours, he’s very fatigued.

“I believe he has about 15 gates on his farm. Every time he arrives at a gate, he has to get off the tractor, open the gate, get back on the tractor and drive through, then get back off to close the gate.”

The tractor’s first step is about 20 inches from the ground – a large step up for anyone who has lower back issues.

“So, what we’d like to add is an additional step to his tractor. But the step must be engineered so he can fold it up once he’s on the tractor. That way hay, or whatever, won’t be caught in that added step.”

As for the gates, Vincent and colleagues are looking at installing “some sort of mechanical gate that can be opened by remote control. That should alleviate his physical strain.”

Another area of assistance for Gill: friendlier stairs at home.

“He uses the rear entrance of his house more than the front. The steps are uneven, are different heights and he’d fallen twice prior to our assessment.”

Plans now include redoing the Gill home’s rear entrance and replacing current steps with ones more accessible and also providing a handrail and landing in front of the door.

In mid-January, Gill’s case is still open and awaiting the modifications AgrAbility personnel have planned. “We hope to have those done in the next few months. But his case should give folks an idea about what AgrAbility can do for farmers in our state.”

How does the funding work in Gill’s case?

“That’s where we rely on our partners. ICAN/Arkansas Rehabilitative Services is helping us with the rear entry of his house and some of the gates. They get federal and state funding to help with the modifications.”

For the modifications on the tractor steps and additional gates, students in the University of Arkansas Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department are helping. The students actually are working on a prototype throughout the school year. If it passes muster, “we’ll implement it.”

Asked if she’s concerned the program be overwhelmed with requests, Vincent is unconcerned.

“We want to help, period. Extension agents know this is available and will be helping with the work in their counties. It would be great, once this is up and going well, to be flooded with calls and requests. We can really provide a really good service for the state through this program.”

What physically limiting conditions is the program willing to tackle?

“We’ll help with any health condition that limits their ability to be productive.

“Also, we have developed a program called ‘Sound Ideas.’ That deals with noise-induced hearing loss. Many people don’t think of hearing loss as being a disability.

“We’ve had displays at some field days around the state. We find it’s common for farmers to say ‘well, I already have some degree of hearing loss so it’s too late. What’s the point of getting involved with the program?’”

However, hearing loss is a progressive condition.

“You can help prevent your current hearing loss from getting worse. True, you can’t reverse hearing loss – but you can keep it from becoming more pronounced.”

Those looking for information on AgrAbility can visit their county Extension office. “The offices should have the educational information farmers might need. There should be brochures and the like in the offices.”

Those looking for information on-line can visit “AgrAbility will have a section there, soon – hopefully in the next couple of months. We do have an e-mail address: Folks are more than welcome to contact me,” says Vincent.

Since being coordinator of the program Vincent says she’s noticed “that farmers hate to admit to something that is limiting. We all are that way to a certain extent.

“Previously, there haven’t been any programs like this to help our farmers. Now, there is. And I hope once they know we’re around – and that we really want to assist them – it will remove that barrier. But so many of our farmers don’t think there’s any help, any other way except to endure.”

Before the AgrAbility team began working with Gill he’d tried several avenues for assistance and come up empty. Now, “he’s very appreciative of our work even though we haven’t completed the projects for him yet. He knows help is coming.”

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