Changes in DVR policy may cause fewer disabled farmers to seek assistance from AgrAbility

Gloria Hafemeister
Alan Kaltenburg  doesn't let his physical disabilities keep him from running his 300-acre grain farm near Arlington.

Sustainability is one of the most used – and overused – buzzwords these days. 

In the area of agriculture, companies listening to increased consumer demand want to add the “sustainability tag” to their product.

In most cases the word refers to maintaining a balance in the environment so that needs are met both now and for future generations. For non-profit organizations, it means figuring out how the organization would survive if some of the major funding would be lost.

The concept of sustainability also applies to AgrAbility’s mission. 

The goal of that organization has been to provide resources and support for farmers with disabilities to continue to farm and meet the needs of themselves, their families and their communities. In order for both the Wisconsin and the National AgrAbility programs to continue they must also be able to show sustainability.

Search for new partners, supporters

Both rely primarily on USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture for funding to sustain their activities. Wisconsin’s AgrAbility program has been funded for the last 28 years and has been approved for funding for the next four years but AgrAbility Director Brian Luck says a new component in the grant application process is showing that an organization could be sustainable if funding went away. 

Brian Luck

With that in mind, he told members of AgrAbility’s advisory council there is a need to start looking around for new supporters and partners.

There is no doubt about the success the organization has had in keeping farmers with physical challenges working in the occupation they love.

Wisconsin’s program is a partnership between the University of Wisconsin Extension, Biological Systems Engineering and Easter Seals of Wisconsin. Direct client services are provided through Easter Seals Farm Assessment and Rehabilitation Methods (FARM) program. Since the program began it has helped nearly 3000 Wisconsin farmers remain in business despite physical limitations.

The Easter Seals FARM program began when, in the late 1980’s, staff was hearing from its rural clients that vocational rehabilitation programs were not meeting the needs of farmers. Easter Seals addressed that need in 1989. Through this program, counselors visited farms to do assessments and then help them find ways to obtain the equipment and pay for it.

Not all farmers getting assessments from AgrAbility 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.

Over the years AgrAbility began working closely with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to help fund some of the needed equipment. Logically, economics played a role in whether the cost of modifications would be justified.

Pulling back support

As AgrAbility developed its relationship with DVR, often clients began the process by visiting their local DVR office to figure out ways to remain on the job despite a disability.  DVR then worked with FARM program counselors to assess the needs.

More recently, however, DVR has pulled back in its support, requiring a profitability analysis of the farm before contributing to the cost of modifications to keep the farmers on the farm. Those who have seen the successes in the program for so many years believe farmers, like those in any other occupation, know the numbers in the analysis are misleading because they do not consider things like equity and the current economic situation for all farmers, not just those who have disabilities.

57-year-old farmer Alan Kaltenburg tests his corn right from the field. keeping meticulous records in order to maintain a successful farming operation.

Alan Kaltenburg, is 57 years old and has farmed all his life at Arlington. He lost his left arm in a feed mill accident when he was just 4. In 2010, he fell 30 feet from a ladder on a grain bin and shattered both ankles. Neither of those physical issues kept him from running his 300-acre grain farm.

He says farming with one arm was not an issue when he was younger but eventually it became more difficult. Climbing ladders, especially to bring something down from a storage area in his shop, was dangerous. Climbing into a 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. He is still farming today as a result and has not had to collect any disability payments.

He told the Advisory Council, “When you have an injury your profit is down because of the additional medical costs and costs of hiring help while you recover. When evaluating a farmer’s profitability at a time like that, of course, it will not look good but it doesn’t mean the farm’s profitability will be down long-term.”

Fewer farmers

One of the big concerns among the FARM program counselors has been that the changes in DVR policy have led to fewer farmers seeking assistance from AgrAbility.

Richard Straub, AgrAbility’s co-director from UW-Madison, says, “Even if farmers have heard that DVR is not supportive, AgrAbility can still do things to help. Farmers should still call.”

He notes that many farmers have been helped through the program over the years even if the modifications were not funded. In fact, often farmers were not looking for financial assistance but only for advice, ideas, and sources of modified equipment.

During the 2017-2018 project year, 411 farmers were served and most of them were employed full-time as the owner/operator of the farm. The three most common primary types of agricultural operations are dairy, livestock and field/grain operations. The leading primary disabilities were joint injuries, followed by back injuries, arthritis, amputations, heart disease and orthopedic injuries.

Quadriplegia wasn't able to keep third generation farmer Eric Beckman down.

Those working with AgrAbility also benefit in other ways. Many of those who have worked with the program are participating in the Neighbor-to-Neighbor program and host meetings to share ideas with others. Through this program farmers network and share their experiences concerning disabilities and rehabilitation. 

Any information provided by farmers to AgrAbility is strictly confidential. Sometimes there are concerns about soliciting donations to the program because of the confidentiality policy.

Straub says this should not be a concern because no personal information is ever disclosed unless those who have participated in the program agree to share their experiences in order to benefit other farmers.

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