Coping With the Physical Toll of Decades of Farming: 'Agrability Project' Aims to Help

Feb 19, 2015

PERU, Maine - Farming is one of the most physically demanding occupations, and with the average age of a farmer now at 58.3, something's gotta give. That's where the National Agrability Project comes in.

Maine is one of 23 states that's signed on to the USDA-funded program designed to help those who work on the land to find ways to overcome a variety of disabilities, from arthritis to missing limbs. Jennifer Mitchell recently visited a farm in Peru, Maine, to learn how the project works.

"Just had a calf born there not long ago over in that corner," says Stan Haynes. It's 6 degrees with an inch of fresh, new snow at this hilltop farm in the western mountains, where Haynes has farmed for more than 40 years. He grows his own vegetables, tends to a herd of black Angus cattle, collects several dozen eggs every morning from a mixed flock of hens, and does all the maintenance that comes with managing a small farm.

But, at almost 71, the chores are taking a toll. "Ugh. I thought I would be healthy forever here, but things happen," he says. "I have a chair in the barn that I sit once in a while if I get aching real bad, but to me it's important to keep going."

Haynes is the classic picture of a Maine farmer with his plaid shirt and heavy boots. He's got a Maine accent. He's got a tough-as-nails attitude. But he's also got the physical ailments that come with a life spent pitching hay and cleaning barns.

"So I have problems with my back, arthritis, and spinal stenosis," he says. "I've had both knees replaced. One shoulder had to be wired up."

One big problem for farmers like Haynes is that farm equipment is designed with the able bodied in mind. For example, tractors often feature just one big step, and it takes a certain amount of agility to get on and off.
 

Stan Haynes at his farm in Peru.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / MPBN

  Forty years ago, it wasn't a problem for Haynes, but then came a day when he could no longer mount that tractor. That's where the Maine Agrability project, part of a national effort funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, came in.

"So Agrability added a lower step so that I have two steps now," Haynes says. "So I can get on the tractor much easier."

"He's not having to hoist himself up, which is going to use his shoulder and eventually wear his shoulder out so he doesn't get a secondary injury as well," says Ellen Gibson, a specialist from Goodwill, one of several partners in the Agrability project. Gibson's plan for Haynes also included the installation of special mirrors on the tractor, because Haynes is no longer able to twist around to see what's behind him.

Another partner is Alpha One, which helps the disabled live more independently. And the third is the Cooperative Extension. Coordinator Lani Carlson says the partners perform a consultation at the farm and then come up with an action plan.

"So we essentially do that farmer-speak, where we come out and we understand agriculture, and then the other partners understand the body functions-occupational therapists, and independent living specialists, so they understand what implementations need to be taken to keep the farmer farming," Carlson says.

The assessment and plan are done at no cost to the farmer. And then the whole thing gets reviewed by an agency, like the Maine Department of Labor's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which chooses whether or not to fund a project.

The Agrability project aims to find those in need, find the workarounds for pretty much every kind of disability, and get the project in front of a funding agency. The project is also open to those who work in the logging and fishing industries.

For Stan Haynes, getting his tractor retrofitted with a few simple aids has made all the difference, he says, but it doesn't fix everything. He still moves more slowly than he did 40 years ago, and he still needs to need to lean on that chair in the barn from time to time.

But if you ask him why he doesn't just retire and put his feet up permanently, he'll tell you this cryptic tale: "Salesman came along the road and the farmer was repairing his fence. Salesman stopped and he says, 'That's hard work. What would you do if you happened to receive $1 million? And the farmer thought a minute and he said, 'I guess I'd farm until it was all gone.' " Haynes laughs.

I think that means he's not going to retire.