Assistive technology conference helps farmers be outstanding in their fields

Spring is a busy time for farmers and ranchers. Long days are spent tilling the fields and planting crops, caring […]

Spring is a busy time for farmers and ranchers. Long days are spent tilling the fields and planting crops, caring for livestock and their offspring, and doing the countless chores.

More than 190 farmers and ranchers with disabilities, speakers and vendors took a break from spring work to attend the National AgrAbility training conference held April 8-11 in Bloomington.

Farmers and ranchers with disabilities are served by the AgrAbility project, which just marked its 20th anniversary nationally.

Minnesota AgrAbility also celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

“We get to feature what we are doing and help farmers and ranchers connect with resources,” said Al Rasmussen, Minnesota AgrAbility Program Director. “Farmers and ranchers are doing what they love to do, and we’ve excited to help them find the equipment and resources they need to do their work.”

AgrAbility has active programs in 24 states. Minnesota AgrAbility is a program of the University of Minnesota Extension Service and Equipalife. Equipalife is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to assisting individuals with disabilities, their families and the professionals who serve them, to find adaptive technology devices and services.

The vision of AgrAbility at the national level is to enable a high-quality lifestyle for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with disabilities. Through education and assistance, AgrAbility helps to eliminate or at least minimize obstacles that inhibit success in production agriculture or agriculture-related occupations. Nationally AgrAbility is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and consists of a national project and state/regional projects each involving collaborative partnerships between land grant universities and various nonprofit disability services organizations. The national project is led by the Breaking New Ground Resource Center at Purdue University in partnership with Goodwill Industries International, the Arthritis Foundation—Indiana Chapter, and University of Illinois- Urban/Champaign.

Minnesota AgrAbility leaders said they are honored to have Minnesota host the annual national training conference. Attendees could attend a number of sessions, hear speakers from around the county and take tours of area agricultural enterprises.

Farmers and ranchers and their families, states’ and national AgrAbility staff members, United States Department of Agriculture staff and staff from Extension Service participate in the conference.

The farmers and ranchers involved in Minnesota have a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities, said Dan Stores. He is the assistive technology manager for Minnesota AgrAbility and assistive technology program manager for Equipalife.

The types of assistive technology and services each farmer and rancher needs vary by the type of disability, as well as by the type of farming or ranching operations. “We deal with a host of issues and the adaptive equipment needed to help,” Stores said.

What the farmers and ranchers share is a love of the land and a passion for their careers. “Most people tell us that even with a disability, they want to stay on their farms and ranches, and be working for as long as they can,” Stores said. “We’ve had people joke with us that we’d have to carry them off of the farm in a sack.

Stores said the national conference is eagerly anticipated. “We have a lot of good workshops for farmers and ranchers, with information they can use for their operations.” The conference also gives farmers, ranchers and their families a chance to meet each other, network and share ideas.

The conference helps the state and national AgrAbility organizations address priorities including public education, networking, assistance and marketing. Session topics include assistive technology devices and equipment, agriculture opportunities for people with physical or developmental disabilities and social media. Rasmussen said one feature organizers are expecting to draw attention is the “action track,” a wheelchair on tracks that allows for travel through the roughest and muddiest rural terrain. It also allows users to stand as they do chores ranging from construction to feeding livestock.

The assistive technology is always a huge attraction, Stores said. “It’s a good learning experience for people to see and try out what’s new in terms of assistive technology. It helps people do their jobs better.”

Another popular conference feature is the ability to go on tours, Stores said. Part of the Minnesota conference is a tour of a dairy farm where the farmer uses assistive technology to run his farm.

Additionally, participants can attend sessions devoted to agricultural production and learn about financial planning for agribusinesses; funding opportunities, such as federal Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grants and U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency loans; how to market their products; and estate/succession planning.

To learn more about Minnesota AgrAbility, go to www.equipalife.org/news/minnesota-agrability-project/ To learn more about the national AgrAbility project, go to www.agrability.org