AgrAbility of Wisconsin helps keep injured, disabled farmers working

Gloria Hafemeister
A strong advocate for the program is Arlington grain farmer Alan Kaltenberg who lost his arm in a feed mill accident when he was 4.

ARLINGTON – There once was a time when farmers who were injured or who had a physical health problem were forced to seek another profession. Some farmers and their families may not think of a health problem as a disability, even though the day to day tasks of an agribusiness may become increasingly difficult to perform.

Since 1991, however, through the work of AgrAbility of Wisconsin there are opportunities to continue in agriculture. Those who work with this program say the severity of a disability is not a factor of qualifying for the program.

AgrAbility of Wisconsin is a cooperative partnership between The University of Wisconsin-Extension and Easterseals Wisconsin. Last week members of the AgrAbility Advisory Council learned about services provided during the last year.

Brian Luck, co-director of AgrAbility of Wisconsin is affiliated with the UW-Madison engineering department. He explains that Easter Seals does the FARM services for the program and UW-Madison does the grant writing. Grants come from a variety of sources including the five-year USDA/NIFA and private foundations.

“For the first time in our thirty year history, AgrAbility did not meet its grant goals because of the COVID-19 pandemic that limited how many farm visits we could visit,” according to Amanda Harguth, Outreach specialist with AgrAbility.

Still, during the time period between Sept.1, 2020 and Aug.31, 2021, 391 farmers with disabilities were served. Most of the clients served were employed full time as the owner/operator of the farm. Three most common operations served were dairy, livestock and grain operations. Primary disabilities were joint injuries and back injuries, arthritis, amputations and orthopedic injuries.  

Easterseals Wisconsin FARM Program helps farmers return to farming after a disabling accident or illness. Rehabilitation Specialists visit the farm and, with the farmer and family, look over the entire operation, evaluating buildings, terrain and equipment while making note of each task that needs to be performed.

MORE: AgrAbility mission is to keep farmers on the farm.

he specialist creates an individualized plan recommending specific equipment as well as modifications to existing equipment and the worksite. Modifications can range from adding a set of extra tractor steps to completely redesigning a milking parlor.

The plan may then be submitted to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation for funding, for eligible farmers.

Several farmers who have benefited from the program over the years participated in the annual meeting and continue to volunteer their farms for tours and events that help AgrAbility tell their story.

Alan Kaltenberg worked with a Rehabilitation Specialist who suggested changes and improvements to make his farming operation safer and easier. In January he was named as a director of the Easterseals Wisconsin Board of Directors.

A strong advocate for the program is Arlington grain farmer Alan Kaltenberg. He worked with a Rehabilitation Specialist who suggested changes and improvements to make his farming operation safer and easier.

In January he was named as a director of the Easterseals Wisconsin Board of Directors. The statewide board consists of 18 individuals who dedicate their time to support Easterseals Wisconsin programs that assist people with disabilities across the state.

Kaltenberg lost his left arm in a feed mill accident when he was just 4. 

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.

Chilton dairy farmer Adam Faust is another beneficiary of the program who continues to serve on the AgrAbility Advisory Council. He 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. 

Adam Faust

He has become an active spokesperson for the organization and has hosted AgrAbility events at his farm.

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 leg amputation.

Several other farmers who benefited from the program also continue to help support the program in order to help others like them around the state.

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 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.

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. Changes last year have resulted in improved cooperation between DVR and AgrAbility but farmers like Faust say there is still a need to educate the DVR counselors about the logistics of farming because most of them have no farm background or understanding of how unique farming is compared with other occupations.

AgrAbility conducted several specialized workshops virtually during the last year to help DVR counselors understand the specialized needs of farmers. Now AgrAbility is planning a workshop in April at the Marshfield Research Station that is geared toward education DVR representatives from around the state about specialized equipment and needs for farmers with disabilities.

At that event the DVR representatives will see modified skid steer loaders, specialized equipment for attaching wagons without getting out of the tractor, milking equipment and other things that make it possible for farmers to remain on the job.

Brian Luck

Luck says “DVR can be a strong advocate but we need to continue to work with them so they will understand the importance of this modified equipment.”

He says the goal of this workshop is to give the DVR counselors hands-on experience so they have a better understanding of farming.

Dick Straub, co-director of AgrAbility is also chair of the Wisconsin Rehabilitation Council.  He says when that Council meets they are also asking them to report at each quarterly meeting.

He says, “The environment with DVR has improved considerably but we are concerned that if farmers hear that they are unwilling to help they will not apply for assistance from our program.  We know DVR is willing to help but we need to help them understand more about farming.”

Dick Straub, co-director of AgrAbility of Wisconsin, Roger  Williams, a former professor and teacher and  also the founder of the Harvest of Hope Fund which provides financial assistance to Wisconsin farm families in distress, and Paul Leverenz, President and CEO of Easter Seals of Wisconsin visited at the annual AgrAbility of Wisconsin Advisory Council meeting recently in Arlington.

Paul Leverance who was formerly the director of AgrAbility of Wisconsin and now serves as President and CEO of Easter Seals of Wisconsin commended the organization for continuing to work with DVR representatives. 

AgrAbility of Wisconsin is also in the midst of planning for the national training workshop that was postponed from last year due to COVID-19 restrictions.  The 2022 event will be March 14-17 in Madison and includes professionals and consumers from all over the country who participate in plenary sessions, breakouts, tours, networking and other special events.

To learn more about AgrAbility of Wisconsin or to check out their specialized equipment exchange site check out AgrAbility’s web site at