UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded funding to Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences to help farmers with disabilities remain productive and successful.
The grant of nearly $184,000 will support AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians, which is a collaboration between Penn State Extension and United Cerebral Palsy of Central Pennsylvania, a nonprofit specializing in support and services for people with disabilities.
For more than 20 years, AgrAbility PA has provided services and support to help farmers and other agricultural workers with a disability or long-term health condition continue in production agriculture.
Farming is physically grueling work. Many farmers cope with arthritis, amputation, vision and hearing loss, and back and knee problems, among other health conditions.
Aging farmers are especially at risk. According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the average age of a Pennsylvania farmer is 56. Aging farmers tend to experience limited mobility and a slower reaction time. This can lead to injury, explained Kendra Martin, who serves as outreach coordinator for AgrAbility PA.
The USDA-NIFA grant is competitive among states around the country. The funding will sustain the program for four more years. Martin noted that AgrAbility PA plans to enhance and grow the services and support offered to farmers and agricultural workers with disabilities or long-term health conditions through farm assessments, financial resources and networking.
The program will enhance education and outreach to underserved populations in agriculture, including women, veterans, Amish, urban farmers, and minority and ethnically diverse farmers. The addition of mental health and stress resources and support is another critical component.
“Research has identified stress management as one of the top needs among farmers,” said Suzanna Windon, AgrAbility PA project director and an assistant professor of youth and adult leadership in Penn State’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education. She is also the director of the college’s Ukrainian Rural and Agricultural Development Program.
Additionally, new collaborations with Primary Health Network and Penn State’s College of Nursing are aimed at strengthening outreach to rural medical centers. This education can help health care professionals better support the needs of farmers with disabilities.
“If a farmer sees a physician or nurse practitioner, it is important for that health provider to know what type of work that farmer is returning to,” Martin said. “Working on a farm looks different — and it is different on each farm. The step up to get onto a tractor is much more significant than a step into a home, for example.”
AgrAbility PA plans to develop continuing education training for health care professionals, Martin said. The course will provide detailed information about AgrAbility, disability services and health challenges for farmers.
Among other services, AgrAbility provides a free, on-site farm assessment. As project assistant and case coordinator for the program, Abbie Spackman visits farms to identify barriers to completing essential everyday tasks and to discuss safe and appropriate assistive technologies.
“It’s a conversation,” Martin said. “We sit down with them in the barn or at the kitchen table and learn more about what they do, what the work involves, and what’s going on in their lives.”
AgrAbility PA does not provide direct funding for equipment. However, the program staff works with the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF) and other third-party funding sources to help farmers obtain assistive technology and modifications.
“We believe that collaborative work with our partners and their contributions will be very impactful,” Windon said.
Lifelong farmer Garvin Schaffer exemplifies that impact. Schaffer knew from a young age he wanted to spend his life farming. Plagued by back and knee problems in his 30s and 40s, Schaffer utilized the farm assessment in 2018 and implemented assistive technology for his farm through “braided” funding — combining funds from OVR and PATF. A utility vehicle helped with mobility around the farm, an ergonomic tractor seat provided relief from back pain, and ergonomic tractor steps offered safer access onto and off equipment.
“When you love something so much and face the possibility of not being able to continue, it is well worth making the phone call to see how they can help,” Schaffer said. “The knowledge AgrAbility PA had about options and assistive technology was very helpful.”
Helping farmers continue farming is crucial for Spackman. “Those are the people who feed us, provide for us and take care of our earth,” she said.
Spackman recalled a recent conversation she had with a farmer to gain feedback on the project. What impacted the farmer the most?
“You provided hope,” the farmer said.
–Alexandra McLaughlin, Penn State University