AgrAbility program offers assistance, hope to disabled farmers, families

2017-05-19T06:45:00Z AgrAbility program offers assistance, hope to disabled farmers, families Illinois Farmer Today
May 19, 2017 6:45 am

This year, AgrAbility celebrates a quarter-century of assisting farmers who have become injured or disabled, along with their families, to remain viable agricultural producers.

In an era when fewer farmers provide the food and materials needed for clothing, shelter and renewable fuels, AgrAbility helps farmers to continue in their chosen vocation for the good of everyone.

Congress approved the AgrAbility program in 1990, led by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin (retired), with a coalition of other Congressional leaders. The program received its initial funding in 1991 and began delivering services in 1992.

The AgrAbility mission, as its 2016 Annual Report says, is “to enhance quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with disabilities” (

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, national director of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, observed, “AgrAbility has led the way to enhancing economic success and wellbeing for farmers, ranchers, other agricultural workers, and their families … in spite of disabling conditions … to contribute to American agriculture.”

During its first year, the USDA funded demonstration programs in eight states, along with a National AgrAbility Project (NAP) to offer technical assistance to the state projects, nation-wide training opportunities, data collection and evaluation of impact.

Eventually, the number of federally funded state and regional projects grew to 23. Due to recent federal funding reductions, currently there are 20 such projects. The next farm bill will determine if AgrAbility continues and to what extent federal funding will support AgrAbility.

Purdue University successfully won competitive grant applications to administer the NAP for most of the past 25 years; the University of Wisconsin-Madison administered the NAP for an eight-year period. State and regional projects, which are funded separately at the federal level, are administered through state university land-grant institutions’ Extension programs. Each project is required to have at least one nonprofit disability services partner.

The Purdue University NAP has a long history of working with various national nonprofit disability organizations to leverage program impact. Currently, Goodwill Industries and the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living partner with the NAP. Past partners include Easterseals and the Arthritis Foundation.

State AgrAbility programs also depend on various partners to aid farmers with disabilities and to pay for assistive devices, like prostheses and lifts to enable people to use tractors and implements when they cannot climb. Moreover, the state projects provide support group meetings, on-farm consultations with injured farmers and their families, and aid with acquiring rehabilitation funding.

Has AgrAbility achieved what it set out to accomplish? Clients and their families enthusiastically say “yes.”

For example, Afghanistan combat veteran Michael Trost, who lost his right thumb and was shot four times in his legs in 2012, participates in Tennessee AgrAbility. The 2016 NAP 25-year summary indicates one of his damaged legs had to be removed below the knee recently; its big toe was used to replace his lost thumb. Now, he and his wife raise horses, donkeys, alpacas, chickens, vegetables and hops for brewing beer on their East Tennessee farm. Trost is happy with his progress.

Testimonies by the 1,300 clients who receive AgrAbility services annually are highly positive but they don’t compare the outcomes of service recipients with people who don’t participate in AgrAbility. Ongoing evaluation efforts, led by Colorado State University professor Robert Fetsch, compare a treatment group with a no-treatment comparison group.

Quality of life ratings on the McGill Quality of Life (QOL) survey by 199 AgrAbility clients increased by 28 percent, according to a 2017 AgrAbility Harvest publication.

Comparatively, QOL evaluations of 97 comparison group subjects declined by 4 percent.

Another measure, the Independent Living and Working instrument, showed that scores increased 29 percent for AgrAbility recipients, while the no-treatment comparison group improved 8 percent. Fetsch observed, “USDA is rightfully focusing on justifying its program expenses. AgrAbility works!”

On a personal note, I know several farmers and families who participate, or have participated, in AgrAbility programs. The injured AgrAbility participants acquired assistive devices to continue their farming operations, along with counseling to aid their emotional “handling” of injuries. Most importantly, they and their families regained hope!

Prospects for the future of AgrAbility funding by the federal government are unclear. As I write this in late April 2017, the USDA budget for the upcoming few years is unknown and awaits Congressional debate and approval. I know AgrAbility is highly worthy of continuation.

Interested people can check out the AgrAbility Webinar Series at online-training. People seeking information about local, state, regional or the National AgrAbility Program services can contact or call 1-800-825-4264.

Dr. Mike Rosmann is a member of the Advisory Board of the National AgrAbility Program; he receives no salary. Contact him at:

Copyright 2017 Illinois Farmer Today. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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