Call Pathfinder: Farming on Wheels? Unpacking a Disability Employment Agri-Program

Caller:   My nephew is a veteran who uses a wheelchair for mobility. He came home last year after an injury damaged both of his legs.  My brother is kind of broken-hearted because Phil had studied and planned to take over the farm.  He has a degree in Agribusiness from Middle Tennessee State University, and he grew up helping his Dad work on the farm. Even while he was going to MTSU, he was working on the farm. My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents all made their living from that ground, and I can’t bear to think of it getting sold. I know my brother feels the same way. I told my nephew I would make some calls and see if there is a program to help him find work. He can’t stand to see all the work that needs to be done on the farm, and not be able to help. He says he’s ready to go back to work. I found Pathfinder when I was searching online.

Pathfinder: Well, you’ve come to the right place because there is a statewide program that may help your nephew if he’s still interested in farming.  AgrAbility is a program that is for persons with disabilities whether they are new to farming, longtime farmers, or veterans transitioning into farming.

AgrAbility says its vision is to enhance the quality of life for all agricultural workers with disabilities and their families and communities to succeed in Rural America.  The Program’s priorities include education, gainful employment, networking, direct assistance, and marketing for farmers with disabilities. Helping farmers draft business plans is sometimes done too. And that’s not all, you have to get the farm\s ready, right? Onsite, specialists evaluate whether the work, task(s), or environment can be modified or changed to remove specific barriers for farmers with specific disabilities.  Sometimes they may recommend commercial equipment to help with farmers’ needs.

While AgrAbility has no funds to pay a farmer or buy equipment, they refer farmers to appropriate funding sources. Sometimes program agents will identify and secure a donation from a local source – perhaps a local patron — to pay for a small assistive technology change. They also have the experience and expertise to input assistive technology and/or make modifications when needed.

AgrAbility is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Tennessee Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). The program has many collaborators and partners, including the University of Tennessee Extension Institute of Agriculture; Tennessee State University Cooperative Extension College of Agriculture; the Star Center; the Tennessee Technology Access Program (TTAP), and the state Department of Veterans Services. Services are available in all 95 Tennessee counties.

Here is the contact information to AgrAbility. You can find it in the directory of services on Pathfinder’s website.

If your nephew doubts you when you tell him this good news, have him look at this February, 2022 Introductory presentation from their website.

He may be plowing through the fields soon when he sees some of the assistive technology that can make his farming career dream literally come true. I particularly loved the lift that goes on the back of a truck and can move a farmer from a wheelchair into the seat of a large tractor. I also was impressed with the wheelchair which is undeterred by mud or uneven terrain.

Questions and scenarios found in the Call Pathfinder column represent questions received by Pathfinder but are not taken from actual Pathfinder calls. Actual resource information provided varies based on the specific situation and needs of each individual.