Agriculture program helps Utah farmers with disabilities

(Eli Lucero | Herald Journal via AP) Randall Bagley is the new coordinator for the AgrAbility program at Utah State University, poses for a portrait on Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in Logan, Utah. Bagley joined AgrAbility of Utah as its program coordinator in March. His office is on the USU campus. He said he’s still learning the ropes, but he has found the job very fulfilling, he said Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

Logan • Agriculture can be as much a lifestyle as it is an occupation. Farmers often don’t retire — they just keep on working. That’s not always easy, though, as back problems, knee problems and any number of other disabilities can get in the way.

AgrAbility of Utah, a partnership between the Utah State University Cooperative Extension and nonprofit Allies with Families funded through the USDA, is here to help with exactly that issue.

Randall Bagley joined AgrAbility of Utah as its program coordinator in March. His office is on the USU campus, and while he says he’s still learning the ropes, he has found the job very fulfilling.

"It really helps some great people," Bagley said. "Farmers and ranchers, they're kind of the lifeblood of our country here. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be eating. They work hard and they have a tough life, a lot of them."

According to Bagley, AgrAbility can help current farmers and ranchers who have some type of chronic illness or disabling condition. Those criteria cover a lot of disabilities farmers may have, Bagley said.

"Stuff like vision or hearing, back problems, knee and joint problems, we can cover that," Bagley said. "People with heart conditions, seizures, cancer, all of that would be included in this."

AgrAbility can help by going to farms and ranches to assess where they might be able to help by modifying equipment. They can connect ag workers to Vocational Rehab or the Utah Center for Assistive Technology, who can provide certain funding or specialized equipment solutions. They can coordinate service projects with groups like FFA. All of AgrAbility's services are strictly confidential, Bagley said.

The average age of farmers, ranchers and ag managers in the U.S. has been going up for decades. The average is now over 58 years, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. While that's a concerning statistic on its own when considering the future of U.S. ag production, AgrAbility is focused on how to help farmers who want to keep working despite disabilities.

The issues AgrAbility's clients deal with are by no means all age-related. Agriculture is a risky industry, with about 100 ag workers suffering an injury that takes them off the job at least temporarily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to current farmers and ranchers, AgrAbility can also assist family members, regardless of whether the family member is planning on pursuing a career in agriculture.

“If they (ag workers) have a child with an injury we can work with them also,” Bagley said.

AgrAbility client George Allen, 52 of Kingston, has lived almost all his life with back pain. He fell and took a log across his back when he was 12.

"It really hurt, but all the people I know talk about their back injuries and how much it hurts and how difficult it is, and I'm like, 'OK, I guess that's just life,'" Allen said. "And so I tried to deal with it."

He couldn't count how many times he got into a position where he couldn't physically move and he had to call his wife or his father to carry him back to the house. When one day he'd injured his back worse than he ever had before, he went to the doctor and was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease.

Allen found out about AgrAbility through an old pamphlet he found in a used car he'd bought. He figured they probably weren't around anymore, but he called and found them eager to help.

"The whole time I've been working with them, they're really nice, really pleasant," Allen said. "They come out to the farm and look around and see what you need, ask what you need. And they help you in areas that can keep you farming longer."

It's not easy for farmers to get help when they need it. They often don't have a lot of cash flow, Allen said, and even finding people qualified to help can be hard.

AgrAbility didn't guess about Allen's needs. They came to the farm, spent time examining his equipment, then took the time to find solutions that worked for him.

For example, AgrAbility has found side-by-side UTVs very helpful for many farmers with disabilities, but Allen hadn't ever found one he could use comfortably. Working with AgrAbility, he went to dealerships and looked at several models. Nothing clicked until an AgrAbility worker suggested the Bobcat Toolcat.

"It's just such a handy piece of equipment," Allen said. "It takes the place of a lot of backbreaking work. It has a quick-attach front end so I can put buckets or post hole diggers or Ditch Witches or whatever on the front."

Allen said his brother, who is 13 years older, called the Toolcat "cute" the first time he saw it, but after Allen had him test it out with a task in the field, he was sold.

"We use it every day," Allen said. "And it's a piece of equipment that I wouldn't have been able to buy for myself because of the price of it, but it has really, really, really helped."

Joe Decker, of Panguitch, has joint problems with his neck, back and most recently his knees. He served two tours with the Navy in Vietnam and 27 years in the National Guard, and he attributes the bulk of his disability to military injuries.

Even though farming and ranching involves a lot of heavy labor and Decker finds even bending and stooping difficult, it's what he loves to do.

"I've been agriculture most of my life, and it seems to be the only thing that I really want to do," Decker said. "It gets me out of the house and it makes me get off the couch. And these guys seem to really want to help me stay that way."

It's just himself and his wife working on the ranch, Decker said, and it's good to know there's a resource like AgrAbility out there for people if they truly need it.

“Sometimes there’s just some things you can do by yourself and some things you can’t because you can’t move around really easy,” Decker said. “There’s just some things you have to let go because you can’t do them. And these guys (AgrAbility) seem to want to help you get to where you can do it.”