Photo by Cameron Lane-Flehinger
Farmers rise with the sun, sometimes as early as 3 to 5 a.m., labor in the fields or work with livestock for the entire day, and end their day around 8 p.m. For farmers with disabilities, however, the manual and mental labor that is their livelihood can become impossible.
AgrAbility of Wisconsin, formed through a partnership between the University of Wisconsin Extension and Easter Seals Wisconsin, provides assistance to an estimated 38,740 Wisconsin farmers with limitations or disabilities — including chronic illnesses, agriculture or non-agriculture-related injuries, and mental health issues. In Wisconsin, nearly 12 percent of workers make a living off of agriculture.
AAW Director and Senior Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Richard Straub explained that AgrAbility often gets in contact with farmers’ families, as many farmers are unlikely to view their disability as severe enough to warrant assistance from an outside group.
“Farmers have a real passion for what they do, whether or not they have a disability.”
A farmer requesting assistance from Agrability must fit two requirements: They must be trying to make $1,000 in production agriculture and their disability must be hindering them in their farm work. AgrAbility determines whether the farmer’s disability is having a negative impact on their work through a consultation and assessment process in which experts visit the farm and ask the farmer to explain their work and any difficulties they have while performing tasks.
Very few farmers are turned down during the assessment process, according to Straub, who lives on his 110-acre family farm and said he has the same passion that farmers have for agriculture.
According to AgrAbility’s 2015-’16 Annual Report, 60.3 percent of Wisconsin farmers’ disabilities originate from a chronic illness or condition, the majority of which stems from the repetitive nature of their job — lifting heavy objects, bending up and down, climbing and intricate hand movements.
“If a dairy farmer is milking in the typical Wisconsin dairy barn, he will be carrying milker units for 100 cows (200-300 times/day), bending to wash the udders, to put on the milker unit, and to take off the milker unit,” AAW’s outreach specialist, Abigail Jensen, explained. That’s about three to four times per cow a farmer is bending over and multiple times when they are carrying or holding a 15- to 20-pound milker unit to attach to the cow.”
Because of these movements, farmers often develop chronic conditions such as joint and back problems and arthritis. Straub added that the aging process is often aggravated by the labor-intensive nature of the job.
The stresses of farming are not only physical. According to studies done by centers for rural health and agricultural health and safety, farmers have the highest rate of suicide of any occupational group.
Although there has been little research conducted to find the underlying cause of this finding, AgrAbility officials said a small percentage of the farmers they assist suffer exclusively from mental illness. Farmers are unlikely to report suffering from mental health issues, however, and AgrAbility suspects that the number of cases are actually higher.
AgrAbility has been continually funded by a federal grant of $180,000 for 28 years as well as outside donations and fundraising. They provide a number of services aimed to help farmers continue making profits and doing the work they are passionate about.
The services include education, assistance, networking and marketing through phone and farm visits, farm assessments and career exploration courses, according to Jensen. UW-Extension focuses on education, networking and marketing. Farm assessments and other direct services like phone calls, visits and educational courses are carried out by the Easter Seals half of the partnership.
Although AgrAbility doesn’t finance any changes in equipment, additional supplies or medical fees, they can help facilitate as a sort of broker for exchanges. For example, on AgrAbility’s website, there is a department sharing page where farmers can find new or secondhand farm equipment.
Farmers may also simply be in need of someone to talk with about their disability to brainstorm ways to make certain aspects of their job easier. Experts at Easter Seals work with farmers to improve their work strategies, modify equipment and suggest further educational opportunities.
AgrAbility’s employees are not outsiders to the agriculture industry. The organization’s makeup is integral in helping and understanding clients because many AAW employees, like Straub, are farmers themselves or grew up on farms.
To locate farmers with disabilities in need of assistance, Agrability engages in many outreach programs. AgrAbility workers go to a variety of public events, such as farm shows, state fairs and conferences.
This outreach is especially important because farmers are now more diverse than they have been in years past, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. To stay connected and accessible to a diversifying workforce, increasingly made up of women farmers and farmers who are people of color, AgrAbility does specific outreach targeting these groups.
“About three to four times per cow a farmer is bending over and multiple times when they are carrying or holding a 15- to 20-pound milker unit to attach to the cow.”
According to AgrAbility’s annual report, AgrAbility clients were 98.5 percent White, 0.7 percent African American, and 0.7 percent Native American. These numbers are close to, but not exactly the same as, statistics from the 2012 USDA Census. This census found that .1 percent of Wisconsin farmers are African American and .34 percent are Native American.
“We do outreach to these populations through events throughout the year, in addition to other minority farmers including Hmong, Amish and Mennonite, beginning farmers and women farmers,” Jensen explained.
In the past few decades, rights for people with disabilities have expanded and have become an increasingly public social justice issue. In July of 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, banning discrimination on the basis of disability. However, people with disabilities still face discrimination and daily struggles that able-bodied people do not.
Both Straub and Jensen said farmers are some of the most hardworking, passionate and dedicated people in the workforce they know.
“Farmers have a real passion for what they do, whether or not they have a disability,” Straub said “This is what AgrAbility is here for: to help them maintain the productivity of their farming and continue doing what they love.”