University of Vermont

Vermont AgrAbility Project Provides Help for Farmers with Disabilities

At 94 years old, Merton Pike of Stowe still works on the dairy farm he sold to his son Les and daughter-in-law Claire. What is even more amazing is that he is a double-leg amputee, one above the knee and one below.

After a tragic farm accident in 1971, Merton installed hand controls on his tractors so he could continue to work on the farm. Today he still drives the tractor, hays and performs various other farm chores. 

With two prosthetic legs and two canes, he only appears to have a strong limp, such as many 94-year-olds have.

The accident occurred when Merton was spreading manure on his fields and a pin broke on the spreader. He dismounted his crawler tractor to replace the pin, and then using a hand control, engaged the tractor in reverse. At the same time his feet sunk in the snow, and he was stuck while the tractor backed onto his legs and continued spinning its tracks on top of him.

The now-ended Rural and Farm Family Vocational Rehabilitation Program, run by University of Vermont (UVM) Extension and the Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, helped Merton get back into farming. 

However, as a result of his injury, he saw the need for similar programs in other states to provide assistance and support for farmers who have experienced a traumatic or acquired injury or health condition and who want to continue farming.

He was not alone. Others around the country also recognized the need for this type of program. So began the development of the National AgrAbility Project. Daryl Lowry, program supervisor for Vermont's program, and Merton were instrumental in kindling this incipient project.

AgrAbility came into existence through the 1990 Farm Bill, and the first eight State/Regional AgrAbility Projects (SRAPs), including one in Vermont, were funded in 1991. At that time, the National AgrAbility Project was led by Purdue University's Breaking New Ground Resource Center in partnership with the Easter Seals' national office.

Funding continued to grow over the years and currently there are 21 U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded SRAPs providing services in 22 states plus several unfunded affiliates serving other states via other funding sources. All AgrAbility Projects are partnerships between a land-grant university and at least one nonprofit disability organization. In Vermont this partnership is between UVM Extension and the Vermont Center for Independent Living.

The Vermont AgrAbility Project helps farmers and agricultural workers who have been seriously injured or have chronic health conditions including, but not limited to, arthritis, spinal cord or back injury, amputation, brain injury, paralysis, visual or hearing problems, respiratory ailments and muscular impairments such as cerebral palsy. 

Qualifying enterprises include, among others, dairies, beef farms, sheep and goat operations, fruit orchards, vegetable farms and vineyards.

On Aug. 20 Vermont AgrAbility will host a field day at the farm of Kenny and Kelli Young in Springfield for anyone in agricultural production interested in learning more about its services, including assistive technology solutions, modified farm equipment and other assistance to allow farmers with injury or chronic conditions to return to farming.

For more information, contact Geoff Whitchurch, Vermont AgrAbility Project Education and Outreach Coordinator, at (802) 888-4972, ext. 403, or (866) 260-5603 (toll-free in Vermont) or by e-mail at vtagrability@uvm.edu. Or visit www.uvm.edu/extension/vtagrability or www.facebook.com/vtagrability.