Thirty-two years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, following years of focused educational efforts from disability rights groups and a lengthy bipartisan effort in Congress. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is committed to ensuring its programs are inclusive and provide equal opportunities for all.
In 1991, NIFA launched its AgrAbility program to provide education, assistance and support to farmers and ranchers with disabilities through Extension programs. What started as eight demonstration projects has grown into an effort truly national in scope. Currently, there are 21 USDA-funded State/Regional AgrAbility Projects (SRAPs) providing services in 22 states.
“The AgrAbility program demonstrates Extension’s ability to respond to local needs and make a difference through collaborative partnerships,” Victoria Finkenstadt, AgrAbility National Program Leader, said. “These programs and the impact they have on clients show how much we all can collectively benefit by providing opportunities, expanding boundaries and making it possible for people to hope.”
In its 30-year history, the program has provided direct, on-site service to more than 13,600 people. A typical site visit involves an AgrAbility program staff member working with clients to identify barriers and brainstorming solutions, whether that be adaptations like a lift for tractors or hand controls for other equipment or developing routines and processes to help a young autistic man to live and work independently on the family farm.
Created by the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990 (Farm Bill), AgrAbility helps people with all types of abilities and disabilities. While some have sustained traumatic injuries, others struggle with chronic conditions. Additionally, the program assists clients grappling with mental and behavioral health issues, including veterans who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Another NIFA program, AgVets, funds diverse projects to benefit veterans. Many of these also offer workforce readiness and employment prospects for service-disabled veterans. AgVets was originally created and funded in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017.
Crystal Kyle is NIFA’s Veterans Emphasis Program Manager as well as a veteran that farms and a researcher.
“Veterans have worked in demanding conditions much like farmers do and are used to adapting and overcoming,” Kyle said. “This makes farming for veterans a natural fit, and the reason I am so excited to work with this important NIFA program. NIFA’s AgVets-funded programs offer veterans a place to learn with common and shared symbolism.”
She said the overall goal is to lead veteran farmers into successful and safe operations.
“AgVets partnerships with national and state AgrAbility projects are highly encouraged and often in place in successful funded proposals,” Kyle said. “These programs can be critically important in the success of a farm when there are both short- and long-term changes to a farmer’s disabilities.”
The Servicemember Agricultural Vocation Education (SAVE) program in Kansas received an almost million-dollar grant through AgVets in 2018. One of the program’s goals is to help veterans with PTSD and brain disorders through the therapeutic effects of farming.
Located in Manhattan, Kansas, SAVE partners with academic institutions to provide hands-on agricultural training on a 308-acre working farm. The program is certified by the Kansas Board of Regents and offers a 340-hour curriculum to participants.
“SAVE is a pathway to both healing and farming,” said Tod Bunting, chair of the organization’s board. “Our goal is that there is no limitation to participating in our programs.”
The farm is ADA compliant, ensuring all can benefit from its programs. Most program participants chose some type of small-scale farming. Beekeeping, small-scale livestock operations and specialty crops such as leafy greens, cut flowers, and mushrooms are some of the most frequent choices.
Bunting, a retired Air Force major general, said the program seeks to help people move forward.
“When people are out working on our teaching farm, the core stimulus is nature. That’s what we offer —come out here, unplug and learn to be a good steward of the land. Our therapy comes from sunshine and dirty fingers.”
Top photo: Farmers in various fruit orchards. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.