Down on the Farm

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News April 2014

Working in agriculture proves challenging, but farmers with SCI continue to make a living and feed America.

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Having spent his whole life on the family farm, John Enns thought his days in agriculture were over when he sustained a spinal-cord injury (SCI).

“Honestly, when you have an accident like that, a lot of people who aren’t acquainted with anybody in wheelchairs or been acquainted with anyone who has had a spinal-cord injury … you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I’m not going to be able to farm anymore,’” says Enns.

While doing custom work for a neighbor, Enns had an accident, a heavy equipment rollover, pinning him underneath the machine he was seatbelted in. Enns was at a loss for how he would continue to raise 640 acres of wheat, milo beans, alfalfa and cattle on his farm in Enid, Okla., until he went to occupational therapy. That’s where he was introduced to the National AgrAbility Project, a government program that helps farmers and ranchers make their farms work for their disability.

Getting Help

While feeding his cattle, Mark Hosier raised a hay bail too high, causing it to flip back and break his back leaving him with a T-11/12 SCI. The soybean, corn and pig farmer from Alexandria, Ind., was hesitant to seek help.

“Well, it was hard but I thought I would get completely over it, I thought I would be better and go ahead and farm normally,” Hosier says. “I was against having adaptive equipment to begin with and then decided that it would be better off to have the adaptive equipment and farm than to have somebody else do it, and then you just lay around and never get anything done.”

So he called the National AgrAbilty Project. Led by the Breaking New Ground Resource Center at Purdue University, the project rose from the 1990 Farm Bill. Since then, it has grown to gain sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as well as regional projects in 24 states.

Kylie Hendress, marketing and engagement coordinator for the national project, says the main goal of AgrAbility is to work with farmers who have injuries, disabilities, illnesses and mental and behavioral health issues to “figure out how they can continue to farm.”

Mark Hosier was hesitant to buy any adaptive equipment, but he wouldn’t be able to work his farm without lifts and hand controls on his tractors and combine.

When a new client contacts AgrAbility, someone is sent to assess the farm. The main objectives of the assessment are to find out what the farmer wants to accomplish and give suggestions on what should be added and/or adapted on the farm so those goals can be met.

Making Changes

Both Enns and Hosier switched out some of their old, hard-to-open barn doors to overheads, got an agricultural scooter as well as added hand controls and lifts to equipment like tractors and combines.

Hosier also put his pigs on concrete and widened the aisles to allow for his wheelchair to turn around. But out of all the adjustments he says the lifts and hand controls are the most important, which is why Hosier is looking into getting a new lift installed on his pickup truck.

“It will actually put you right in your pickup and you can take it and it will extend you 15 foot out and 15 foot high,” Hosier says. “So if I had a piece of equipment that did not have a lift chair on it, I could also get in it with the pickup lift, so it makes you more accessible to do more things.”

When Hosier was first injured, the only option for something like this took up the entire bed of the truck, making it more inconvenient than useful. The new version he is looking at from Lyfe Essentials, the Pilot Lift, sits just behind the cab of the truck, leaving the rest of the bed open for storage and towing.

“That’s been a big item right now because that’s a little less expensive to just get that and put it on one truck,” Hendress says. “It can get you into your pickup, but it can also then get you into your tractor, get you into your combine, all from the lift on the pickup.”

Enns, on the other hand, likes his all-terrain scooter for its ability to get him all around his farm.

“It’s heavy duty, it’s not one of these little things you see advertised on TV,” he says.

“The Journeyman scooter (Lyfe Essentials) is a good one for farmers to try to actually get around more,” Hendress says. “Now a newer product out that several manufacturers have is they’ve developed wheelchairs with tracks on them, like the big tracks that you see on tractors and combines and stuff. They’ve put tracks on the wheelchair, so guys are getting those and using them for all-terrain situations.”

Finding Funds

While all of this adaptive equipment is necessary and helpful, it can be pricey. Add in the costs of medical bills, rehab as well as farm and home updates, and you’re looking at impossibly high expenses.

“The farmers that are handicapped, with an accident like that, it would be financially devastating,” Hosier says. “If I wouldn’t have had the help, I wouldn’t have been able to continue to farm.”

After each assessment AgrAbility writes up a report that is then turned in to a state agency, like vocational rehabilitation, to help the farmer receive funding on the new equipment and updates he or she will need to continue running the farm. AgrAbility, vocational rehab and other organizations make it possible to continue farming without a huge financial setback.

“We work together,” Hosier says. “As long as I’m able to work, I’m paying for taxes, and if I’m not working, I’m not paying taxes and they’re paying to take care of me.”

Both Hosier and Enns received assistance from vocational rehab. With the help, they have kept their farms and continue to make farming their main source of income. Enns has a secondary income from his work as a state representative. He is currently working to help AgrAbility receive more funding so it can continue to help farmers like him and Hosier.

“I’ve been trying to help them through legislation as well, possibly getting some money appropriated to them through the state funds so they can do that and help more people who are in agriculture and disabled,” Enns says.

Moving Forward

AgrAbility served 1,228 farmers and ranchers with disabilities in 2012. The program regularly takes new clients while continuing to assist existing clients as new problems arise to keep everyone in agriculture, including the injured, doing what they love.

“It kept me active, my farming. I like to farm, I’m good at operating the equipment, I know what I’m doing, I enjoy it. Once I got to talking to AgrAbility and found out that we could adapt equipment over, I was willing to do it so I could continue,” Hosier says, adding that no one should be afraid to call and ask for help.

“Don’t ever give up. Just don’t quit because that tendency is there it’s like, ‘Oh well this is just too hard, you know?’ Enns says. “But honestly, if you keep getting in that mindset of ‘You know, I’m not going to quit,’ then you’re motivated to keep doing things. And even though everything you do seems to take about three times longer than whatever it used to, you’re still doing it. You’re keeping your body in shape and doing what you love to do.”


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