Texas AgrAbility helping military veterans, agricultural producers with disabilities

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COLLEGE STATION – Tim Smith, who has a degenerative bone disease, is the owner of  S&L Farms in Anderson — a 28-acre year-round organic agricultural operation producing a variety of vegetables, as well as laying hens and Thanksgiving turkeys.

For years, Smith, now 54, had to work his land with a 1948 Ford tractor and rototiller or plow with implements either built for the antique tractor or designed to be pulled by a horse. But that was before he found out about the Texas AgrAbility Project administered by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, part of the Texas A&M University System.

“We had to start in January to get ready to plant in March,” he said. “It took two months to do field work that should only take four to five days.”

Along with having to use outdated and uncomfortable equipment, Smith’s condition had been growing progressively worse, partly severing his S1 nerve and making it increasingly difficult to perform daily work activities.

“I have limited to no feeling in my feet and legs,” explained Smith. “Where most people can feel where to put their feet, I have to look down to see where I need to put mine.”

While at their local tractor supply company, Smith’s wife Stacey learned about Texas AgrAbility while flipping through a magazine. She suggested Tim contact Texas AgrAbility to see if they might have some ideas on how to make daily tasks less difficult.

“The Texas AgrAbility program sent an occupational therapist and a mechanical engineer from Texas A&M University to evaluate the operation, look at the equipment and make recommendations,” Smith said.

After years of collaboration with Texas AgrAbility and through funding provided by the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, Smith was able to obtain a new tractor and rototiller. The tractor was then adapted to his specific needs by adding new hand holds, a power inverter and a quick-release system for the new implements.

“This last year, we were able to plant about 2,000 tomato plants in two weeks, where before it would have taken us about a month to plant only 100,” Smith said. “And recently a financial advisory team from Texas A&M came out and did a projected financial analysis of the farm for the next 20 years, so I could use that as a basis to ask for additional funding.”

Agriculture is a high-risk occupation, and farmers and ranchers who are injured or disabled often have a difficult time remaining in production agriculture, said Dr. Rick Peterson, Texas AgrAbility Program director, College Station.

The Texas AgrAbility Project, administered by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, works with other agencies The Texas AgrAbility Project, administered by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, works with agencies such as the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services to meet clients' needs. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

The Texas AgrAbility Project works with  agencies such as the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services to meet clients’ needs. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

“Our goal is to assist, connect and empower producers, their family members and employees with disabilities or chronic health conditions so they can remain in production agriculture,” Peterson said.

Texas AgrAbility, which has served thousands of farmers and ranchers throughout the state through direct contact, education and referral, came into existence through the 1990 Farm Bill. It is part of the National AgrAbility program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Texas AgrAbility Project was established in part by a grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Additional support for serving its clients has been provided through the USDA’s Risk Management Agency and the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.

“Our staff members have experience in production agriculture, occupational therapy and agricultural engineering,” Peterson said. “We make site visits and provide recommendations for equipment adaptation, home modifications or any additional adaptive equipment that may be needed for a farm or ranch operation.

“We also connect farmers and ranchers with service providers who can assist them through training and technical assistance, as well as information and resources needed for their specific type of agricultural operation, such as assistive technology.”

Peterson said some of the assistive technology available to farmers and ranchers may include uniquely designed tools and equipment, lifts for trucks and tractors, modified all-terrain vehicles, special wheelchairs with action tracks for rough terrain, motion-sensing solar-powered gates, even modified milking machines.

He said that from the Texas A&M University System alone, Texas AgrAbility draws expertise and skills from agricultural engineers, economists and agribusiness development professionals, occupational therapists, program specialists and AgriLife Extension agents throughout the state.

“There are currently about 50,000 people involved in production agriculture in Texas who are affected by disabilities or chronic health issues,” Peterson said. “Ultimately, what we want to do is keep producers in the field and in the driver’s seat – both figuratively and sometimes literally — of their agricultural operations.”

Another agricultural worker Texas AgrAbility is helping keep in the driver’s seat is Preston Northrop, 59, a hay farmer in Brenham who sustained a spinal injury four years ago, which ultimately left him paralyzed from the knees down. Northrop has spoken at AgrAbility workshops, sharing his experiences as a person with a disability who has remained involved in production agriculture.

Preston Northrop of Brenham, center, with members of Consolidated A&M’s FFA program and Erin Pilosi of Texas AgrAbility, next to the tractor the students modified with hand controls and other adaptive technology.  (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Preston Northrop of Brenham, center, with members of Consolidated A&M’s FFA program and Erin Pilosi of Texas AgrAbility, next to the tractor the students modified with hand controls and other adaptive technology. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

“AgrAbility brought a team of people to assess my operation and see my personal situation and my difficulty in getting on the tractor and out to the fields,” Northrop said. “They planned out what they thought I would need and then whether we thought it would work.”

Student volunteers from the FFA chapter at A&M Consolidated High School heard about the project and got involved as part of what is now the project’s Leadership with Educational and AgrAbility Programs, or LEAP — a mutually beneficial partnership between Texas FFA chapters and Texas AgrAbility. The students made needed modifications to Northrup’s tractor, allowing him to control with only his arms.

“The AgrAbilty folks gave me some other helpful suggestions, like installing a solar-powered self-opening gate, so I don’t have to get off my tractor,” he said. “Everything the students and AgrAbility folks did helped me do more work and feel more secure about operating all my equipment. They helped give me back the freedom to do things by myself.”

Dr. Cheryl Grenwelge, Texas AgrAbility project coordinator based in College Station whose Ph.D. is in educational psychology, provides day-to-day supervision and implementation of educational instruction and case management for Texas AgrAbility clients like Smith and Northrup.

“I grew up on ranches in multiple states, so having a personal background in production agriculture and a professional background in working with people who have disabilities,” Grenwelge said. “This gives me a unique insight and understanding of what individuals who are in production agriculture and also dealing with a disability may require.”

Grenwelge, who noted that the average age of a farmer or rancher in the U.S. is currently about 60 years old, said fewer and fewer people in production agriculture are being relied upon to provide the food, fiber and other agricultural commodities needed.

“It is not only in our social interest, but also our economic interest to keep as many people as possible involved in production agriculture,” she said. “This includes people with a condition acquired through a catastrophic accident or as a result of an ongoing health situation, such as arthritis, that limits employment or the performance of work tasks.”

The Texas AgrAbility Program also has a special interest in addressing the possibilities for ranching or farming by active duty and former members of the military, Grenwelge said.

“Among all U.S. states, Texas has the second largest number of military veterans,” she said. “About 45 percent of returning vets are from rural areas, and we want to enable them — whether or not they have a disability — to return to the area of production agriculture they choose.”

It’s often difficult for military veterans to find gainful civilian employment after their service, said Erin Pilosi, Texas AgrAbility’s military workshop coordinator who presents programs throughout the state.

“That becomes more difficult when you’re living in a rural area, and even more difficult when you are a person with a disability,” Pilosi said. “However, those who have served their country typically show the sort of independence, commitment and work ethic needed to succeed in an agriculture-based business.”

One of Texas AgrAbility’s most popular programs, “From Battleground to Breaking Ground: A Transformational Journey,” was designed with input from AgriLife Extension, Texas AgrAbility, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, the National Farmer Veteran Coalition, Farm Service Agency, Texas Department of Agriculture, nonprofit organizations and others. Along with a presentation by a veteran currently involved in production agriculture and overview of the Texas AgrAbility program, the workshop provides information on resources available for funding, business plan development, resource networking and more.

A 'Battleground to Breaking Ground' workshop for military veterans and active duty military, with our without disabilities, was held recently in Edinburg. Similar workshops are held throughout the year in different parts of Texas. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

A ‘Battleground to Breaking Ground’ workshop for military veterans and active duty military, with our without disabilities, was held recently in Edinburg. Similar workshops are held throughout the year in different parts of Texas. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Audra Berry and her husband Sean, both former military, have attended the Battleground to Breaking Ground workshop. The couple, currently involved in two different agribusinesses – one a family hay-farming operation and the other a pastured poultry business between Richards and Anderson —  is also investigating the possibility of starting an organic garden operation in the future.

“The workshop was very helpful in allowing us to network with others who are current and former military involved in agribusiness,” Audra Berry said. “We were also able to find out more about financing, which we’re now in the process of requesting through the Farm Service Agency.

“And the business planning information was helpful, as was hearing from other veterans who are now actively involved in agribusiness. I think the networking was the most important thing – being able to learn from others in the same sort of business.”

Pilosi said Texas AgrAbility also provides information and support to military and non-military women involved in production agriculture through these workshops.

Another military veteran who has benefitted from Texas AgrAbility is Doug Havemann, a former Army and Army National Guard member who served in Desert Storm. Havermann and wife Melissa operate Mesquite Field Farm, which they describe as “a small off-grid cottage farm located southeast of San Antonio.”

“We produce rotationally grazed grass-fed beef on about 20 acres in Nixon,” said Havemann, who left the service in 1998. “We don’t use any chemicals on our cattle or the farm for that matter, nor do we feed them grain. Our cattle eat grass. After ensuring we had adequate grass for the cattle, we began operations in earnest in 2013.

“We made good decisions and last year we were able to increase the number of livestock on the property. And 2014 looks to be a great year. In fact, we’ve already sold out of our grass-fed beef to date.”

Havemann said he learned about and attended the Battleground to Breaking Ground program while attending a farm and ranch show last year on the San Antonio Livestock Exposition grounds.

“At the program I got a lot of good information about business planning,” he said. “I only regret that I didn’t find out about Texas AgrAbility sooner — and about possible funding through the Young Farmers Grant. At 46, I’m just one year too old for that. I guess the main thing I took away from the program was that I was delighted that people were finally talking about the ways current and former military could get involved in production agriculture.”

Pilosi also oversees the Leadership with Education and AgrAbility Programs effort, which is seeking to bring FFA and 4-H members into the fold.

“LEAP provides a mutually beneficial partnership between Texas FFA chapters and Texas AgrAbility,” Pilosi said. “Benefits include incorporating students with disabilities into agricultural science programs, service-learning projects that provide a meaningful way of applying leadership and educational skills to address a community issue, and project opportunities to meet individual student interests.”

Texas AgrAbility is successful because of the interest and involvement of many agencies and organizations throughout the state, Peterson said.

“We realize that people with a disability are proud people, but everyone needs help from time to time,” he said. “There are agencies, organizations and groups in Texas that can help farmers and ranchers with a disability, as well as current and former military members, disabled or not, become successful in production agriculture. We want to let people know we’re here and will help them if we can.”

For more information, go to http://txagrability.tamu.edu or call 979-845-3727.

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