‘Long way to go’: Leader of Wisconsin program wants to help more farmers with disabilities

Jonah Beleckis
Wisconsin Public Radio
A New Richmond farmer is able to access the cab of his tractor using a lift, thanks to the AgrAbility program that helps farmers with disabilities stay in the field they love.

The head of a program called AgrAbility that has helped thousands of Wisconsin farmers with disabilities said he is looking to grow staff so they can more fully meet demand for services.

Jeff Kratochwill, the farm program director of Easterseals Wisconsin, said his seven-person team provides resources to farmers such as assistive technology. Prosthetic legs can help farmers get on top of a tractor. Others with arthritis need help to bend down and milk cows. 

"Certainly, we realize Wisconsin is a big state and a lot of territory to cover," he said recently on WPR’s "The Morning Show." "There (are) certainly a lot of farmers out there that could benefit from our service that currently aren’t either reaching out to us or don’t know about us."

On its website, AgrAbility says more than 4,000 injuries happen on state farms each year and nationally "agricultural production is one of the most hazardous occupations with the highest disabling injury rate of any industry." More than 38,000 Wisconsin farmers have a limitation or disability.

AgrAbility, which has been around for more than 30 years, is provided by Easterseals Wisconsin in partnership with UW-Madison’s division of extension. The program has assisted 2,500 farmers and their families, according to its website.

A 2019 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture helps the program focus on veteran farmers and farmers of color, connecting them to USDA assistance, Kratochwill said. 

Kratochwill said the program has reached nearly every county in the state and currently has about 400 farmers in its caseload. He called the application process straightforward. It starts with a short application on the program’s website or over the phone at 608-262-9336. Once enrolled, case managers talk with farmers about their needs and then a staff member makes a site visit.

"It’s important to see the situation," Kratochwill said. "It’s also important to see the level of impact of the disability to the point that it’s limiting them."

He said AgrAbility needs to reach farmers quickly; site visits usually happen within a week or so.

A farmer with a prosthetic leg poses in Menomonie in about 2017.

"The farm doesn’t stop," Kratochwill said. 

Site visits are free for farmers and can be as confidential as the participant would like, he said. The program supports farmers with permanent disabilities and those whose needs are temporary, too.

AgrAbility staff develop plans to assist farmers by bringing in new technology, restructuring farm work, identifying funding sources, coordinating health care and more. 

While Easterseals Wisconsin handles direct client services, UW-Madison’s division of extension supports the program with outreach, such as showing up at farm trade shows, Kratochwill said.

He is happy with how farmers are getting more access to services they need, but the work isn’t finished. 

"We still have a long way to go," he said.

This story republished with permission from Wisconsin Public Radio