In 1982, Ed Bell was 21 years old, owned 1,000 hogs, and was running his parent’s farm in Hagerstown, Indiana. He was just beginning to get serious with a girl named Debbie. But Debbie had a jealous ex-boyfriend, who had a .44 caliber revolver.
“I was shot, and paralyzed from under my arms all the way down,” he says. After three months in the hospital, Bell came home in a 28-pound stainless steel wheelchair that he could barely navigate through his family’s log cabin home. His dreams of hog farming fell apart. His parents nearly lost the farm.
It was technology, coupled with his tenacity, that got him back to work. Bell now has two electric wheelchairs, one with treads for off-roading through his fields and another that allows him to stand up. Mechanical lifts made by a company called Life Essentials get him in and out of his tractors, the controls of which have been modified so he can operate them solely by hand. The only reason he had time to talk to me in the middle of harvest was because a storm had rolled in.
Bell’s story is unusual. But its narrative arc—farmer gets hurt, technology helps farmer get back to work—is not. A recent study published in The Journal of Agriculture Safety and Health suggests as many as one in every five US farmers suffers from a disability that impacts their physical health, senses, or cognition. Offsetting that statistic and keeping Americans fed are technologies like four-wheel-drive golf carts, auto-locking tractor hitches, and even boring old smartphones.
For nearly 30 years, a federally funded program called AgrAbility has been central to connecting disabled members of the ag community with whatever help fits their need. Yet its future is uncertain. President Trump has redlined it from both budget proposals he’s sent to Congress. Legislators from rural states added it back, but the program’s precarious fate makes clear that mishap is always on the horizon for farmers.
Bell was at a farm show in Kentucky when he came across a booth for a new Purdue University program called Breaking New Ground. Its director, a physical therapist named Bill Field, was handing out ear plugs as conversation starters about disabilities and ag. Field got into this space in 1979, when a farmer, paralyzed after his truck rolled over, called Purdue University’s USDA Extension to see if they had any folks who could help him get back into his tractor. The university passed the message along to Field, who gathered up some engineering students. Together, they rigged up a mechanical wheelchair lift and modified the tractor’s cab so the farmer could operate the machine solely by hand.
Inspired by the success, Field established Breaking New Ground. At first, it was just one of many similar ad hoc state-level initiatives that had been around for decades. But Field was persistent, and the program built up steam. Bell rejected Field’s help at first—“My pride was in the way,” he says—but before long his was a regular face at the program’s many workshops and conferences. In 1990, Congress added a line item to the Farm Bill mandating the Department of Agriculture fund an “Assistive Technology Program for Farmers with Disabilities.” This became AgrAbility. Purdue’s Breaking New Ground was selected as the headquarters for the national program.
Despite its hands-on origins, AgrAbility today acts as a facilitator and, when needed, funder of technology, services, and other social resources for disabled members of the ag community. One of its premier resources is its Assistive Technology Database, an index of more than 1,400 vetted solutions for myriad problems. Each submenu is a cornucopia of mobility tech. Has arthritis put a cramp on your shop work? Check out the plethora of easy-grip hand tools. Blown out knees or creaky hips? Telescoping technology can help you tend your fruit trees. One submenu features a variety of lifts for tractors and other farm equipment—customized forklifts, modified cranes, homebuilt cherrypickers, commercial cranes and lifts.
“When I got hurt, the doctor told me: ‘It’s sad you got neck broken, but you couldn’t pick a better country and a better time in history to have it done,’” says Bell. His doctor wasn’t just referring to medical science, mobility tech, or even compassionate care. The US is one of the most progressive nations in history when it comes to legislation for disabled people. AgrAbility has been part of the annual Farm Bill (the current version of which is wallowing in the widening congressional gyre) since 1990. Barack Obama was the first president to include it in his budget, earmarking more than $4.5 million for the program. In his 2017 and 2018 budget proposals, however, President Trump eliminated AgrAbility from the USDA’s finances, “to direct funding to higher priority activities.” Once again, it was up to members of Congress to ensure the program kept going.
If AgrAbility does somehow wind up on this administration’s cutting room floor, it won’t be for lack of need. The ag industry is worth about $1.37 billion—a full percent of the US GDP. It’s hard to calculate how much of that is propped up through assistive care and technology. However, another trio of studies released this year confirms AgrAbility’s effectiveness for improving mental health, physical independence, and overall quality of life.
Disability doesn’t have to be as debilitating as paralysis to curtail a person’s ability to farm. Bad vision or hearing can be debilitating. And many in this profession struggle with mental illness—farming is a low-margin industry with lots of year-to-year uncertainty. “The largest percentage of our clients don’t suffer from injuries, they have what we would call chronic conditions, like arthritis and lower back impairments,” says Paul Jones, the project manager at the National AgrAbility Project in Indiana. “The average age for farmers now is 57, so there’s a lot of wear and tear on the body,” he says.
Ed Bell is now 57, and he can attest to that. “When I was younger, even in a wheelchair I had endless energy,” he says. “I don’t do anything fast anymore. I delegate. I hire help. I maybe don’t work as hard every day, but I still get it all done.”