Helping Georgia growers get back on the tractor

Think illnesses or injuries would put an end to your days as a grower? Thanks to the USDA’s AgrAbility national grant program, it doesn’t have to be that way. Services are available in 22 states, and one of those states is taking its project to the next level. AgrAbility in Georgia broke ground last year for its AgrAbility Farm, which is believed to be the world’s first agricultural facility focused on assistive technology.

Georgia’s AgrAbility Farm will showcase innovative tools to help farmers overcome obstacles presented by chronic health conditions and disabilities.

Challenges presented by chronic health conditions and disabilities

Rebecca Brightwell, associate director of the Institute on Human Development and Disability at the University of Georgia (UGA), which manages AgrAbility in Georgia, says the condition most frequently challenging farmers is a common one: arthritis. Many Georgians are also affected by strokes, amputations and spinal cord injuries. These and other conditions may be accompanied by pain, cognitive or sensory impairment and reduced mobility, any of which can make familiar agricultural tasks difficult to perform.

A hands-on grower who has difficulty running the farm faces numerous challenges. If their active role in managing operations is vital to staying in business, financial security can be threatened. Feeling unable to continue the vocation may emotionally impact longtime farmers. In addition, the risk of experiencing a secondary injury on the farm is high.

Pictured breaking ground at the UGA Tifton Campus AgrAbility Farm are (from left) Bennie Branch (KMC-Tifton), Karen Milchus (Georgia Tech), Charles Griffin (Georgia Pork Producers Association), Laura Jolly (UGA Family and Consumer Sciences dean), Don McGough (Georgia Farm Bureau), Joe West (UGA dean in Tifton) and Glen Rains (AgrAbility Georgia director, UGA Tifton).
Photos courtesy of AgrAbility in Georgia.

AgrAbility programs offer answers

Overcoming those obstacles is where the AgrAbility program steps in. It is focused on aiding farmers in continuing production. Getting back on the tractor and back to the business of farming is realistic for many when trained professionals partner with them to find solutions.

“It may be as simple as rearranging someone’s work environment to make tasks easier or adapting tools,” Brightwell says. “It may be a solution that involves the latest technology, such as a lift that is attached to a tractor so someone in a wheelchair can transfer into the tractor cab.”

A heavy-duty, motorized wheelchair enables Andy Byrd to continue his Whippoorwill Hollow farm in Walnut Cove, Ga. A diving accident left Byrd with a spinal cord injury.

Andy Byrd, a fruit and vegetable grower who owns and operates Whippoorwill Hollow Organic Farm in Walnut Cove, Ga., found that even his spinal cord injury need not put him out of business. His county extension agent suggested that AgrAbility might be able to assist him in working on, and even expanding, the farm.

Moving about his 74-acre farm in a four-wheel drive motorized wheelchair, Byrd needed additional accommodations to continue the operation. Through AgrAbility, volunteers built raised beds at the wheelchair’s height. Staff at UGA’s Tifton campus, which includes an AgrAbility workshop, manufactured an automated pruner that is powered by the wheelchair’s battery and is operated with a toggle switch. The school’s small business center assisted with a business plan for the expansion, which was illustrated by a UGA landscape design student. The program installed a voice recognition software program on Byrd’s computer, which converts his speech to typed text and has voice-activated commands, enabling Byrd to perform administrative tasks. Despite Byrd’s injuries from a diving accident, these modifications allow Whippoorwill to continue to grow and sell certified organic produce, raise livestock and conduct farm tours and events.

There are no fees for Georgians tapping into this resource. Although its AgrAbility project, which works with 35 to 40 farmers annually, is unable to fund assistive technology or modifications, its staff guides clients to sources such as Vocational Rehabilitation, Social Security, Veteran’s Administration and private agencies that may have budgets for such purchases. For items such as Byrd’s automated pruner that are made by staff, the client pays only for materials. AgrAbility relies on volunteers, including students, to assist with labor-intensive projects, such as pitching in for hospitalized farmers. One grower was spared the potential loss of his crop when volunteers jumped in to take care of time-sensitive chores during his illness. Each client receives a staff visit at his/her farm, a plan of action including potential resources, and a timeline for implementation.

For Bob Berry, the program helped him transition his chicken hatchery hobby into a business. His glaucoma limits his vision, making personal deliveries impossible. Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) referred Berry to AgrAbility for assistance in creating a business plan. With a solid strategy outlined, VR awarded Berry’s self-employment plan and has provided financial support to purchase a computer, feed, medical supplies for the chickens, incubators and brooders to accommodate his needs. Berry’s team helped him work around the delivery issue by arranging to have chicks shipped directly to clients and assisted him in being certified by the National Poultry Improvement Program.

AgrAbility was introduced nationally as a provision of the 1990 Farm Bill and began in eight states in 1991. Georgia’s program came online in 2005. In addition, programs are currently funded in California, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Former grantee states Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas continue to offer limited services. The national program is coordinated at Purdue University,

Georgia launches first AgrAbility Farm

The AgrAbility staff spends a portion of their time reaching out to occupational and physical therapists. These sessions often take the form of hands-on workshops in which professionals learn simple and cost-effective ways to modify tools and equipment to meet clients’ needs. Therapists then are well-equipped to assist clients, who often begin the process of adapting farm and household items on their own.

“We work collaboratively with farmers on further developing the ideas they’ve come up with,” Brightwell adds.

During a winter 2009 training trip, Brightwell and her team began to brainstorm about ways to improve their services.

“We started discussing how it is one thing to tell someone about technology that could aid farmers, but it is another thing to actually see it in person,” she says.

Organic grower Andy Byrd discusses his business plan with an AgrAbility staffer.

So, over a cup of coffee, the AgrAbility Farm was born. The group began sketching out their vision of a hands-on demonstration site where farmers could try out assistive technology and other tools. Amazingly, the enthusiastic team and their grassroots supporters broke ground on November 18, 2009, and expect to open the farm in late 2010 or early 2011.

Although the USDA AgrAbility funding has approved use of staff time to develop the farm, the required structures and equipment will be acquired through in-kind and financial donations. UGA is providing a Tifton site and a tractor, and several equipment manufacturers have expressed interest in contributing products.

Developing the farm

The farm will open and expand in stages, but Brightwell has a clear vision for the resource. Its hub will display a tractor modified with hand controls, a lift and other accommodations. Spokes, or wheelchair-accessible pathways, will lead from the tractor to several displays, including Garden Grove, which will demonstrate alternative techniques and equipment for growers. Livestock Way will illustrate methods for safely working with animals, while Back to the Future Blvd. will feature robotic tractors and other equipment that can be operated remotely from a control center. Such technology currently is being tested in Tifton. Tool Time Trail, Mobility Lane and Machinery Row will be outfitted with items that can be tested on the spot. Georgia farmers and agricultural workers may utilize the farm’s services, including expert advice, at no cost. Tours for others will be available on a fee basis.

Ultimately, the farm will be a worldwide resource. By late 2013, an animated computer program will be available online for virtual site visits, including interactions with the exhibits. Work is already underway on this resource, with USDA AgrAbility funding in place.

To learn more about AgrAbility in Georgia or to make a donation, visit or call 877-524-6264. For information about the national program or to locate resources in your state, visit or call 800-825-4264.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for several years.