AgrAbility helps farmers overcome health conditions to continue farming

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Chelsi Shultz
Chelsi Shultz of Danville, Pennsylvania, demonstrates how the carrier system helps her move milkers through the sanchion barn without further damaging her injured shoulder. Shultz reached out to AgrAbility PA for an on-farm assessment after it became difficult to milk because of shoulder impingement pain.(Submitted photo)

It was getting hard for Chelsi Shultz to milk cows on the family’s farm, in Danville, Pennsylvania. Carrying and lifting the 25-pound milkers through the old stanchion barn to attach to 80 or so cows and then to the pipeline above began to cause her shoulder pain.

She was diagnosed with shoulder impingement in both shoulders. It was also getting difficult to pull the wagon loaded with milk buckets to feed calves.

“It was all of that range of motion using your shoulder, and you use your shoulders in most things,” she said. “It was a lot of pain.”

That’s when Shultz heard about the AgrAbility program and reached out for help. The program worked with her to find a solution — a carrier system — and find funding for it so she could milk without pain. It helped her avoid surgery and get back to work, and it’s helped other people working on the farm avoid the health issues she’s had.

The program

That’s what the AgrAbility program is all about. The national program, celebrating its 30th year in 2021, is known for its work with disabled farmers. The program was first funded in 1991 by the farm bill and continues to receive funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture. 

What often comes to mind when thinking about AgrAbility is the big fixes it makes happen — like a tracked wheelchair for a paralyzed farmer or hand controls for an amputee.

“It doesn’t have to be a severe disability. It can be any health condition that is impacting their ability to work on their farms,” said Abbie Spackman, project assistant with AgrAbility Pennsylvania. “It’s about keeping people actively working on their farms and working safely.”

More often, the program is working with farmers with less visible, but more common issues. 

“Arthritis is one of the most common things,” Spackman said. “Back and joint injuries would be another very common thing. Almost everybody we work with has back pain or joint pain or joint injuries to some degree.”

It’s almost never just one issue that brings a farmer to AgrAbility. It’s usually a mix of conditions. The program assists farmers with disabilities or long-term health conditions that impact their ability to farm. The Pennsylvania program is a partnership between Pennsylvania State University Extension and United Cerebral Palsy of Central Pennsylvania.

Getting on the farm

The keystone of the program is on-farm assessments, Spackman said. From there, AgrAbility can identify assistive technology, refer farmers to other resources and connect them with other farmers.

When Spackman does an assessment, she asks the farmers to show her around their farm and walk her through the buildings, the equipment and the way they use or do regularly. What are they doing that’s causing issues? What can’t they do anymore because of pain or physical limitations?

When people are in pain, they often change the way they do daily tasks. On the farm, sometimes these adjustments are not the safest. Spackman recalled one farmer who showed her how he got into his skid loader. He stood in the bucket, turned the machine on and raised the arm to lift himself up to the seat.

“We’re not here to get you in trouble or report you if you’re doing things unsafely, but we’re here to identify things that are unsafe and figure out better ways to do it,” Spackman said.

After the farm visit, Spackman writes up a report with her observations and provides suggestions and possible solutions for the farmers’ issues. AgrAbility provides its assessment services for free to farmers. Some recommendations can be done for free, like implementing a new routine or delegating a task, or at low cost, like a backup camera or tractor steps.

Other solutions are more expensive but may result in a better quality of life. That’s when Spackman directs farmers through the state’s office of vocational rehabilitation or other third-party funding sources.

For the Pennsylvania program, applicants don’t need to have a diagnosis to prove their disability or health condition to get an assessment from AgrAbility. Spackman said they may need medical documentation to get funding from the office of vocational rehabilitation or other resources.

Getting help

Shultz didn’t know about AgrAbility until she asked a female dairy farmer Facebook group for advice about what to do for her shoulder pain. Some mentioned the carrier system.

“I knew it’d be nice, but it was expensive,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be something we could do on our own.”

Several people suggested reaching out to her state’s AgrAbility program. So, she went through the process to get assessed. Shultz was also in charge of calf care and was having issues pulling the heavy cart full of milk buckets to feed the calves.

“It was to the point where she almost couldn’t do it,” Spackman said.

AgrAbility helped Shultz get funding for the carrier system and a powered milk cart through the office of vocational rehabilitation. 

cart
Chelsi Shultz, of Danville, Pennsylvania, received a battery-powered cart to haul milk to calves on her family’s dairy farm. (Submitted photo)

OVR paid for the entire cost of the system — about $40,000 — while the farm had to pay to replace its pipeline system to fit with the new rail system in the barn. Now, instead of lifting the milkers, the equipment can be pushed along the rail system that winds around the barn. The weight is taken off the person milking, Spackman said.

Before the carrier system was installed, Shultz’s husband and the farm’s employee were also starting to complain of shoulder pain. That all stopped once the rail system was in place.

“It didn’t only help me, but it helps other people that are doing the work on our farm,” Shultz said. “And it hasn’t changed our milking time.”

milkers
Milkers in Chelsi Shultz’s barn sit on a carrier system that uses rails to move the milkers effortlessly throughout the stanchoin barn. (Submitted Photo)

And now, instead of pulling a cart full of milk buckets, she guides the battery-powered cart in front of her. It does most of the work. Her children can also use the cart to help with chores. 

That’s a big benefit to AgrAbility’s services, Spackman said. One person may initially reach out for help, but the solutions often help multiple members of the farm.

“If we’re there looking at a dairy farmer and how he’s milking, and you have two other generations on the same farm doing the same task, you have to sit down and say, ‘Look at your dad or grandfather. Do you want to look like that?'” Spackman said. “Maybe we need to talk about modifications that are going to help all three generations continue milking and prevent injuries.”

The one drawback of the program is that it takes time, Shultz said. It took nearly a year from the beginning of the process to get the carrier system up and running in her barn. There was a lot of paperwork and some hoops to jump through to get funding through a government agency, but it was worth it to receive the technology they did for free.

“You have to be patient,” Shultz said. “It’ll pay off.”

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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