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Preserving Livelihoods | Spring 2008 Out Here Magazine

AgrAbility helped Michigan farmer David Wielfaert install a lift to get him up into his tractor.

AgrAbility program helps farmers work despite disabilities

By David Frey
Photography by Robert Hendricks

When David Wielfaert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000, it changed life for him on his Michigan farm.

Gradually, the condition has made it harder for him to do simple things he used to take for granted. Simply stepping up into his tractor became a challenge. Even walking in his greenhouse was a chore.

"As things progress with me, it gets a little harder," says Wielfaert, 49, who grows corn, hay, and vegetables on his 80-acre farm in Britton, Mich. The less work he can do around the farm, he says, the more work it makes for his wife and daughters.

But a federally funded project is making life a little easier for Wielfaert, and for farmers around the country who have suffered disabilities that get in the way of their farm work. The AgrAbility Project links state and federal extension services with nonprofit organizations to provide education and financial assistance aimed at keeping farmers living inde-pendent lives.

"It opens some doors for them that they didn't know were available," says Kelly Kackley, program coordinator for Michigan AgrAbility.

For Wielfaert, the program helped him find assistance to install a lift to get him into his tractor, and a quick-hitch to make it easier to hook up implements without a lot of pushing, pulling, and craning over his shoulder.

It also helped him get concrete poured on one end of his greenhouse — a little change that has made a big difference in getting his walker into the building to check on the flowers and vegetables.

Participants may have any kind of disability. Over the five years it's been running, Michigan's program has helped more than 150 farmers coping with arthritis and amputations, loss of vision, and loss of hearing.

Wielfaert continues to grow corn, hay, and vegetables on his 80-acre farm.

Some 21 state and regional AgrAbility projects operate around the country, helping farmers such as Wielfaert hold on to their lifestyle.


It's an increasingly important project as farmers age and fewer young people are willing to keep the farm going.


"In Michigan, the average age of farmers is in the mid- to upper-50s," Kackley says. "If no one is there to take over, you're going to lose the family farm. It's going to happen a whole lot sooner if something happens to that farmer and they're unable to continue working."


In that respect, Wielfaert is lucky. He has others in the family willing to pick up the slack when he can't do the work. He tries to stay upbeat, despite a condition that makes ordinary tasks harder as it progresses.


"When you work with farming, what doesn't get done today, well, there's always tomorrow," he says. "And if I don't get it done, someone else will. That's the only way you can look at it."


But AgrAbility has made it easier for farmers such as Wielfaert to keep doing as much as they can for as long as they can.


David Frey writes in Carbondale, CO.