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MADISON – Ask any farmer and they will tell you their chosen profession is not for the faint of heart, even in the best of times. Cold wet springs, muddy harvest seasons, rain during haying season presents challenges and so do the pricing systems for farm commodities.

For farmers who develop serious health conditions or disabilities or have been injured in an accident, agriculture becomes even more of a challenge.

It’s that “can-do” attitude, as well as courageous independence in the agricultural community that pushes farmers of varying abilities and disabilities to do what they have to do in order to continue farming.

Ray Scott is one of more than 2000 farmers who have been able to continue in farming despite the physical challenges that come from many years of kneeling under cows and lifting heavy equipment.

The Darlington farmer was on hand at the annual meeting of the AgrAbility of Wisconsin Advisory Council last week to talk about how that organization has helped him remain farming with his wife and son milking in their 65-cow stall barn. 

“I want farmers to know this organization is around to help and they don’t have to quit farming if they get sick or hurt,” he says. 

AgrAbility of Wisconsin is a cooperative partnership between The University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension and Easter Seals Wisconsin. AgrAbility of Wisconsin exists to assist farm workers and farm families affected by disabilities by providing education, technical assistance, on-site consultation services, and identification of potential funding resources.

Since AgrAbility started in 1991, 97% of the clients served have been able to continue to farm as a result of the help they received.

Scott wants other farmers to know that they can continue farming, even when their problems are just from wear and tear on the body and not necessarily from an injury or illness.

Even little things like special knee pads, an additional step on a tractor, specialized upper hand devices attached to shovels or brooms will make jobs easier.

One of the things he still hopes to get is a track system that would reduce the heavy lifting of the automatic take-offs from cow to cow.  While AgrAbility provides farm assessments and helps locate equipment to make jobs easier, it does not provide direct funding or equipment. 

For a time the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation helped provide funds for assistive technologies in order to keep farmers on the job.  That has changed so farmers are on their own to pay for the specialized equipment.

Scott says, “There are still many benefits working with AgrAbility and the changes we have made have really helped.”

He has gotten automatic take-offs which helps eliminate some of the kneeling but he says they add an additional 20 pounds to carry from cow to cow.

He is hoping to get a system that DeLaval has designed to carry the equipment and eliminate much of the stress on shoulders, back and knees.  Last year DeLaval announced that the company would offer a big discount to clients of AgrAbility of Wisconsin in order to make the system more accessible for those with injuries or disabilities.

One of the beneficiaries of that offer was Adam Faust who says he would not be able to continue to run his Chilton dairy farm without this adaptive technology.

“It reduces the need to lift and carry the automatic take-off units over the gutter and between the cows,” he says. 

He says without it and the other technology that the counselors from AgrAbility have recommended over the years he would not have been able to continue farming.

He has become an active spokesperson for the organization and now serves on the AgrAbility Advisory Council.

Faust was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that literally means “split spine” and results in a baby being born with an open spinal column and exposed spinal tissues.  Despite this challenge he was able to farm but a farm accident in 2003 led to an infection that eventually led to the amputation of one of his legs.

Another active spokesperson is Alan Kaltenburg, a 58-year-old farmer from Arlington who lost his left arm in a feed mill accident when he was just 4. 

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He says farming with one arm was not an issue when he was younger but running his 300 acre grain farm in later years was more difficult, especially when it came to climbing ladders and bringing things down from a storage area in the shop.  Even climbing into the tractor became more difficult and operating a skid steer was a challenge.

Over the years he adapted many tools himself but eventually he sought help from AgrAbility and he says he is still farming today as a result of that help and he has not had to collect any disability payments.

When DVR pulled away from providing financial support for needed equipment to keep farmers on the job, AgrAbility counselors were worried that fewer farmers would seek assistance. The numbers, however, have shown farmers still believe there is a benefit to working with AgrAbility even when they don’t receive funding for the special equipment.

The annual report, presented at the Advisory Council meeting last week, shows that AgrAbility currently is serving 361 clients with 54 new clients served during the last year and 45 cases closed.  Counselors made 138 farm site visits during the last year.

The majority of the disabilities include amputations, arthritis, back or joint injuries and orthopedic.

According to Amanda Horguth, Outreach Specialist, “While dairy farm numbers are shrinking, AgrAbility’s dairy clients are increasing.  The majority of our clients are still in the dairy business.”      

Services provided by the organization are confidential but many of those helped are eager to let others know about the help that is available.  Many farmers who have benefited from AgrAbility have hosted “neighbor-to-neighbor” meetings to invite farmers in their area to come to see firsthand how a few modifications can improve safety on the farm and allow someone with a disability to continue working.

Many farmers have testified at state hearings regarding the importance of keeping farmers on the job by providing financial assistance for modified or specialized equipment. Many have taken part in workshops at the national level or have helped local fabricators design specialized equipment that will help keep farmers on the job.

AgrAbility also maintains an agricultural equipment exchange and collects information on any equipment that might be useful to farmers with disabilities. 

Find out more by looking at the program’s website at https://farn.eastersealswisconsin.com/ag-equipment-exchange.

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