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Groundswell: AgrAbility connects farms to vital resources

By March 1, 2024No Comments
WORDS | Lisa Archer PHOTOS | Courtesy of AgrAbility & Slade Farms

When many of us experience an injury, we can restrict our movements, go to the doctor, schedule surgery promptly. If we’re overwhelmed by stress or experiencing depression, we can take a personal day. When we get older, we can retire or slow down to part-time work.

But what do you do when you’re a farmer and it’s harvest or planting time? What do you do if there’s no one to let the cows out to pasture? What do you do if you’re 70, and your eyesight is failing but you’re not ready to stop doing the work that you love?

This is where AgrAbility steps in. A national program, AgrAbility focuses on wellness, accessibility and safety for farmers. Here in Virginia, it is a collaboration between Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, Virginia Cooperative Extension and EasterSeals UCP. Through education, technology and rehabilitative services, two field coordinators cover the state and work directly with clients. Sometimes a problem can be solved with just a phone call, but, more often than not, the field staff will travel out to the farm to make an assessment and then use a tool kit of resources to find solutions.

Often, those solutions are addressing disabled, aging, veteran or injured farmers with mobility issues. Clifton “Clif” Slade, military veteran, retired extension agent and third-generation farmer, grows elephant garlic and sweet potato slips on the same land his parents and grandparents farmed. A range of injuries and two back surgeries resulted in him needing a foot-drop orthotic, making it hard to do common movements such as getting on and off his tractor.

“I have two tractors; one is a 320 John Deere, and if you look that up, it’s way off the ground,” says Slade. “Joe Young [former AgrAbility Services Coordinator] made me steps to go up on my tractor; it made such a difference.” AgrAbility also helped modify tools to make certain tasks easier. “I’m not real tall — just 6 feet — but the hand tools you buy out of the store, they’re too short and I was injuring my back more,” recalls Slade. AgrAbility connected Slade with the Department of Rehabilitative Services. “They made extensions on every one of my hand tools — I’m an organic farmer and if you’re organic you’re constantly pulling weeds — those extensions, they’re worth their weight in gold.”

More recently, Slade was experiencing impaired vision due to glaucoma. “They found me a set of goggles to help me identify weeds, insects. They look like those virtual reality goggles for playing video games. They referred me to the VA Dept. of the Blind and Visually Impaired. Those goggles were $3,000, but the department got them for me for free … I went to the national AgrAbility conference and I used my goggles and it was wonderful — I stopped going to farming conferences because I couldn’t see the PowerPoints, the slides.”

“We’re the connector,” says Leslie Lawrence, AgrAbility Community Outreach Coordinator. “We have a ton of resources and there are grants that we can recommend someone apply to get assistive technology. So the national program provides that network of people that maybe they’ve experienced a similar situation and they can say, hey, I used this at work, and we can recommend that to the farmer.”

In addition to helping farmers with physical disabilities, AgrAbility serves those experiencing stress, anxiety and depression. The suicide rate among farmers in the U.S. is three and a half times higher than the national average, according to a study conducted by Penn State. Farmers face constant financial stress, and have to deal with an ever-changing climate, volatile markets and heavy workloads. Too, farming can be an isolating job and the stigma of the stoic farmer is still very present.

Noticing an increase in stress amongst dairy farmers due to fluctuating prices and a bad market, dairy extension agent Jeremy Daubert attended a training to help farmers cope with stress. “Michigan State was one of the first ones to really come up with this curriculum [Managing Farm Stress] that was specific to farmers. They made it available, and they really pushed it to Cooperative Extensions across the country.” Having taken the training, Daubert was then connected to AgrAbility and now works as one of two Field Coordinators.

“There’s actually a hotline that you can call. It’s a mental health and crisis hotline specific to farmers,” says Lawrence. “So the person answering the phone has a unique understanding of the challenges of farming.”

One of the challenges AgrAbility faces is simply getting the word out to farmers. The program tables at conferences such as the Virginia Association for Biological Farming, has informational material at extension offices, and, more recently, has partnered with doctors’ offices and occupational therapists. More often, though, a farmer is referred by another farmer, friend or relative.

“I referred a farmer last year that had knee issues, but he had to get his crop [peanuts] in first,” says Slade. “Barry, in Charles City County, he grew strawberries and had mobility issues. They outfitted a golf cart, they cut out the center of the cart so he could harvest directly from the cart.”

These innovations allow farmers to keep doing what they love, safely, and to not feel limited by age, illness, or disability. “My 70th birthday was September 21st,” says Slade. “My children, my grandchildren, my two great-grandchildren, took me out for dinner in Richmond. I told them, I’m going to farm until the day I die. And if I’m missing one day, and you find me out in the field, know that I was doing what I love. … It’s my passion and I found a way to make it profitable, and I really don’t know how I’d be getting along without AgrAbility.”

Do you know someone who could benefit from this program? Contact: | (540) 231-4582
To learn more about Slade Farms, visit:
This article first appeared in our 2023 Winter Issue

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