Brother and sister team farm for the future despite health challenges

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Brother and sister farm partners Bob Guidice and Carol Davis think it’s a shame that more people aren’t aware of AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians, a USDA grant program that provides assistance to farmers and farm family members who are struggling to farm while challenged with a long-term injury or illness.

Physical challenges

Guidice and Davis of New Brighton, Beaver County, know all about combining long-term physical challenges with a desire to farm.

“It was December 1989, and as I stepped across a silo unloader, my shoelace got caught in the auger,” recalled Guidice. “My foot was pulled in, severing all my arteries and mangling the muscles, tendons and bones. At Allegheny General Hospital, all the toes on my right foot were fused and a muscle flap transplant was completed using a strip from my shoulder. Unfortunately, that transplant didn’t take because they didn’t realize that I had a blood clotting condition.”

A second transplant was successful, however, even more invasive because doctors used a strip of stomach muscle for the transplant.

Guidice spent more than two years on crutches, and today has significant long-term mobility issues and limited sensation to pressure, temperature and touch.

Further complicated

His condition was further complicated in 2008 when a kick from a cow led to cellulitis in the previously injured leg and foot.

Throughout all the physical challenges, Guidice has continued to farm the family’s combined herd of Holstein and Brown Swiss dairy cows.

He took over the business in 1996, about the same time his sister, Davis, moved back to the farm. A bookkeeper by training, Davis eventually left that position to work with her brother.

She faces her own physical challenges in the form of muscular dystrophy, carpal tunnel syndrome, hypertension and Raynaulds disease. The muscular dystrophy makes it difficult to bend, walk uneven surfaces and to carry heavy objects.

The Raynaulds primarily impacts Davis’ hands. Her circulation is so impacted that she finds it necessary to wear gloves if the temperature dips below 60 degrees; otherwise her hands literally turn purple from the cold.

Enjoys farming

Any single one of these issues might have stopped another individual, but Davis loves working with the cows and calves and enjoys farming as a family business.

“We’ve been determined to find creative ways to lessen the physical impact of farm life,” said Guidice. “That’s why, when we read about another area farmer who had gotten help from AgrAbility, we decided to call and see if the program could help us.”

Guidice initially spoke with David Troutman, AgrAbility case manager. Troutman visited the farm and did an on-site assessment of the kinds of jobs the brother-sister team needed to do, and what equipment was or was not available to help them do it.

“The farm featured a traditional 70 stall bank barn,” explained Troutman. “Since both siblings are responsible for milking chores, we decided that a track milking system with automatic take-offs on the milkers should be at the top of list of modifications that would make work easier.”

Suggested changes

Other suggested changes included a mechanical feed cart, an electrical upgrade to facilitate the use of a TMR mixer, gutter grates, speed hitches and a round bale unroller.

The final item discussed was a video surveillance system that could be used to keep an eye on freshening and sick animals from their homes while reducing the number trips to the barn between feedings and milkings.

All of the items suggested were important to the future success of these two farmers, but the challenge was how to pay for such changes with milk prices at their lowest in many years.

Vocational Rehabilitation

That’s when Troutman connected Guidice and Davis with the Office for Vocational Rehabilitation. The program is funded through the Pa. Department of Labor and Industry, and helps workers with a documented medical condition to make necessary changes in the workplace.

“Our Office for Vocational Rehabilitation counselor, Ken Langford, has been so helpful,” said Davis. “He’s really conscientious; he calls and checks on our progress regularly. And he’s been willing to learn about farming, our disabilities and what we need to keep going. He has really worked hard to get the equipment we needed.”

Davis continued by saying, “Yes, there is paperwork involved; but in the end it really isn’t that much hassle at all for all that they’ve helped us with. We are so grateful for everything they’ve done.”

Real impact

Not only have the modifications helped these farmers physically, but the new milking system, for example, has also made a real impact on the farm’s bottom line.

Guidice explained, “The track system and automatic take-off milkers have eliminated so much of the carrying and bending involved in this process. In addition, it’s helped to reduce somatic cell counts significantly. We didn’t realize how much we were over-milking the cows, and therefore increasing the incidence of bacteria in the udder and in our milk.”

Concluded Troutman, “We are pleased with the support we’ve been able to provide to these farmers. They both have reported that their fatigue and pain levels have decreased, and that they feel more confident and capable of handling their many chores. Ultimately, that’s what AgrAbility is all about.”

AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians helps individuals who are coping with many different kinds of physical challenges, including arthritis, stroke, knee and back problems, amputations, vision and hearing disabilities and many others.

The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is a partnership of Penn State Cooperative Extension, Easter Seals Central Pennsylvania and the Pa. Assistive Technology Foundation.

More information

For more information about the project, or to find out how AgrAbility can help you or someone you know, call 800-416-6061. The project may also be found at http://agexted.cas.psu.edu/agrab/.

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