AgrAbility keeps farmers in the game despite disabilities

Gloria Hafemeister

ARLINGTON – Farming is a demanding occupation, demanding much from the farmer both physically and mentally. It's also a dangerous profession and an accident could derail that livelihood.

Andrea Klahn, AgrAbility Outreach Specialist, visits  AgrAbility supporter and farmer, Alan Kaltenberg on his farm. The Arlington farmer lost an arm in a corn auger at the age of 4. In 2010, a fall shattered his ankle bones. Today Kaltenberg uses a power lift to access his grain bins and can change implements without leaving his skid loader, thanks to AgrAbility.

Through the years, AgrAbility of Wisconsin has worked hard to keep farmers in their chosen field despite claims from naysayers.

Myth: If you have a disability, farming is too dangerous and you need to find another job.

Fact: Since it started in 1991 AgrAbility of Wisconsin has created a significant impact on Wisconsin agriculture by providing assistance to more than 2,500 farmers and farm families who have been able to continue farming or return to the farm worksite through AAW intervention.

Myth: In order to get help modifying equipment or get financial assistance for purchasing modified equipment, a person needs to be severely handicapped or disabled.

 Fact: Any disability that limits a farmer’s ability to perform routine jobs safely qualifies for the program.  Disabilities have varied over the years but this year the leading disabilities were joint injuries and back injuries, arthritis, amputations, and orthopedic injuries.

Myth: If I seek help, my neighbors and family will think I’m taking charity.

Fact: AgrAbility services are available to those individuals and their families who are engaged in farming or farm-related occupations and are coping with the effects of a disability. Services provided at the home or farm are confidential.  When stories are shared it is because the farmers served are so appreciative of the fact that they are able to continue farming and they voluntarily talk about it.

In addition, not all farmers receiving assessments from AgrAbility case workers are seeking financial help in making changes to their farm or equipment.  Some just want ideas from professionals who are familiar with modifying equipment that is available or who can offer suggestions for making modifications on the farm.

All of the above myths would be dispelled quickly after speaking with one of the 421 farmers with disabilities who were served by AgrAbility of Wisconsin in the past year. During the recent annual meeting of the AgrAbility Advisory Council many of farmers receiving services as well as others in attendance believe the number of farmers served could be even higher. Unfortunately there are still many farmers who are unaware that the program exists, they say.

According to Andrea Klahn, outreach specialist with AgrAbility, Wisconsin represents 34% of the clients served throughout the United States.  Nationally, every AgrAbility participates in a partnership between a land grant university and a non profit organization.  In Wisconsin, AgrAbility has partnered with Easter Seals of Wisconsin and co-directors Richard Straub and Brian Luck credit that partnership for the program’s success.

Creating awareness of the program's services 

Several participants believe medical personnel are so far removed from agriculture that they don’t know how to deal with farmers and provide the type of rehabilitation they might need to continue on the job.  To remedy that disconnect, attendees say a continued effort to reach providers in the various hospital systems to encourage them to let their farmer patients know about the services available through AgrAbility is still needed.

Educating statewide Emergency Medical Services organizations of the services available through AgrAbility would allow first responders to share this information with the farmers they encounter.

Over the years AgrAbiity has worked closely with the Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. As DVR staff and government policies change, but in recent years some of that support has been pulled back. Farmers also face many roadblocks in seeking assistance. Currently a profitability analysis of the farm is required before DVR will contribute to the cost of modifications.  Farmers say numbers in the analysis tend to be misleading as they do not consider things like equity or the current economic situation for all farmers, not just those with disabilities.

Making in-roads

In April, AgrAbility hosted nearly 30 Wisconsin DVR staff members for a training session at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station.  The goal of the event was to offer hands-on experience so DVR staff can develop a better understanding of farming.

“DVR can be a strong advocate for agriculture, but we need to continue to work with them so they understand the importance of this modified equipment and how Assistive Technologies work on the farm,” said AWA co-director Brian Luck.

Co-Director Richard Straub, along with crop farmer Alan Kaltenberg, a former AgrAbility client, serve on the Wisconsin Rehabilitation Council which serves as an advisory to DVR. 

AgrAbility client and Arlington Wis. farmer, Alan Kaltenberg uses a lift to reach equipment for repairs prior to fall harvest.

“We have had some impact but we would like to speed the process of getting help through DVR,” Straub said.

Kaltenburg says many clients feel intimidated by the process of getting help from DVR. 

"It isn’t the objective of DVR but there is a need to simplify the process and shorten the time it takes to get help," he said. "Right now, there is a low number of disabled people employed. That should change.”

Paul Leverance, former director of AgrAbility and current President and CEO of Easter Seals of Wisconsin, commended AgrAbility for its continued work with DVR. He also commended Randy Romanski, Secretary of Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, for his continued involvement and the effort he has made to get representatives of AgrAbility on the Wisconsin Rehabilitation Council.

In June, the Department of Workforce Development Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek and Romanski visited two farms in Wisconsin to learn more about how farmers use assistive technology on their farms.

Looking forward

The AAW Advisory Council members also brainstormed about funding in the future.

AgrAbility, at both the national and state levels, relies primarily on USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture funding to sustain their activities.  Recently AgrAbility was awarded a 3-year USDA 2501 SDA (Socially Disadvantaged) grant.  Easter Seals was the primary on the application along with the Wisconsin Farmer Veteran Association, UW-Extension, and DATCP.

Luck says the goal is to encourage underserved farmers, including veterans, as well as increasing awareness of current USDA programs, the Wisconsin Farm Center and other mentoring opportunities for veterans.

Along with its farmer assistance, AgrAbility has been able to develop a resource library, a newsletter and a database of commercially-available adaptive equipment for those with special needs. The organization also provides programs on health care and farm safety in an effort to prevent injuries.

To learn more about the services available through AgrAbility or to learn about ways to help promote or support its programs, check out their website at