VIDEO: Special equipment helps disabled farmers stay active
They'd appreciate your patience, but don't want your pity. What farmers with disabilities want is to stay active on the farm. Agweek profiles three farmers -- two from South Dakota and one from North Dakota, two in their 60s, one in his 20s -- wh...
They’d appreciate your patience, but don’t want your pity. What farmers with disabilities want is to stay active on the farm.
Agweek profiles three farmers - two from South Dakota and one from North Dakota, two in their 60s, one in his 20s - who combine perseverance, passion for agriculture and special equipment to continue doing what they love. These stories include information on financial assistance for other farmers with disabilities who might be helped.
'Laugh and make it work'
TURTON, S.D. - Jim Hansen put in his first crop before he started eighth grade. He’s farmed ever since, and says he’s “never even thought about doing anything else.”
But a series of medical issues - type 2 diabetes, a 2009 heart bypass and a 2012 battle with cancer that led to nerve damage and severely limits his ability to use his legs - put him in a wheelchair and threatened to end his farming career.
“I beat the first one (heart bypass), and I’m cancer free,” he says. “But the cancer is what put me here (in the wheelchair). I can move a little, but not fast or good.” Climbing the ladder steps into a combine or tractor cab is virtually impossible.
Determined to continue farming, Hansen at first had his son lift him up to the tractor cab with a Bobcat loader. But that didn’t last long.
“I was told it wasn’t safe,” Hansen says.
Farmers tend to be proud, self-reliant and accustomed to finding ways of overcoming obstacles, says Bill Begley, sales manager for Brookston, Ind.-based Life Essentials, which provides special equipment for farmers with disabilities.
But those admirable qualities can cause farmers with disabilities to take big risks, such as using loaders to get in and out of tractor or combine cabs, Begley says.
Hansen, faced with the very real possibility that his days of hands-on farming were over, searched the Internet for an alternative. He found one: a lift platform that would take him from ground to cab, eliminating the need to climb the ladder. Begley’s company installed one on Hansen’s combine in 2013.
“That lift, it was a savior,” says Hansen, 62, as he sits in a wheelchair at his farmstead near Turton, S.D.
But it wasn’t a perfect or total solution.
Just getting to the lift wasn’t easy, nor was taking the few steps from the top of the lift into the combine cab. What’s more, it didn’t allow Hansen to get up and down into his tractors, and installing separate lifts on each tractor on his farm would have been too expensive.
So, last year, Hansen began using a motorized lift installed on the back of his pickup. He sits on a chair attached to the lift, which moves him directly from the pickup cab to the cabs of tractors and other farm vehicles.
Because his balance is poor, he says, he sometimes feels “a little scared” when he’s on the lift and in the air.
He also says, “I don’t know if I could still be farming without this. Maybe I could be. But not as easily. Not that it’s easy now (with the equipment), but it’s simplified.”
Sense of humor intact
Hansen lives on the farmstead where he grew up near Turton, a farm town of 50 in Spinks County. The third-generation producer raises corn and soybeans, as do many farmers in his area.
“You’re your boss,” he says of farming. “There’s nobody telling me what to do, how to do it or when to do it."
His 31-year-old son, Craig, a former software trainer, also is part of the family operation.
Jim Hansen says he considers himself “no different from Joe Blow. Except sometimes I need a little more room (because of the wheelchair). And sometimes you need to be a little more patient with me because things can take longer.”
But he’s pleased that people who know him “don’t treat me any different now,” adding with a smile that some of those people continue to call him a name that can’t be reprinted here.
Are those people right?
Agriculture is a dangerous occupation. Every day, 167 ag workers suffer a lost-work-time injury, with 5 percent of the injuries resulting in permanent impairment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Sometimes,” he says with another smile. “I like to harass, and be harassed. Life goes on.”
So does his enthusiasm for guns, which includes instructing area kids in competitive BB gun shooting. South Dakota has a strong tradition in BB gun competition, and “we treat it seriously,” Hansen says.
The kids he instructs “are 12 to 15. By the time, they’re done (with the competitions), they’re like brothers and sisters,” he says.
Hansen plans to “go on (farming) as long as I can. If they find me slumped over dead in the tractor or combine, well, at least I died happy,” he says.
“You can’t give up,” he says. “If you give up, you’re through. You’ve just gotta keep pushing. You can’t lick it, so you just have to live with it. You laugh and make it work.”
Bearded bike rebuilds life
JAMESTOWN, N.D. - Russell Carlson remembers climbing the ladder to fasten some tin on a pole barn after a thunderstorm. He remembers the ladder breaking, falling 14 feet and hitting the ground. He remembers regaining consciousness, getting out his cell phone, calling his brother and saying, “I think I’m paralyzed.”
Even now, five years later, he’s briefly overcome by emotion when he talks about what happened.
Carlson, 67, was right about the paralysis. He’ll be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“My backbone was broken in two places,” he says. “I had nine broken or cracked ribs. And my spinal cord was mangled and broken. The doctor told me, the brain doesn’t regenerate and the spinal cord doesn’t regenerate. So, I’ll never walk again,” something this former U.S. Army paratrooper and ardent Harley-Davidson fan is still struggling to accept.
Carlson, a farm kid who’s spent most of his adult life working for a grain elevator on the family farm, assumed his farming career was finished. Paralyzed from the chest down, confined to a wheelchair and unable to climb up into a combine or tractor - it was an understandable assumption.
It was also wrong.
Special equipment allows him to stay active on the family farm that he operates with his brother, Richard, two years his senior, and his nephew, Derek.
A platform lift installed on a tractor in 2012 came first. Then, in 2013, a motorized lift installed on the back of a pickup allowed him to use other farm equipment, too. The second lift - a sort of swinging crane - takes Carlson, who sits on a small chair attached to the lift, directly from the pickup to the driver’s seat of the other equipment.
“Being able to keep doing this means a lot to me,” Carlson says.
Carlson lives on the farmstead he grew up on. His father started the farm in 1946.
Carlson worked in a grain elevator for 16 years, then, after his uncles retired from the family operation, began farming with his brother.
“I love farming,” Russel says. “Like any job, there are parts you don’t enjoy. But there’s a lot more good than bad. Being out in the fields, the fresh air, watching the crops crops. And you’re your own boss."
The Carlsons grew wheat and soybeans, a common rotation in Stutsman County. They farm east of Jamestown, N.D., a town of about 15,000.
Carlson is active in a number of community organizations, including the Jamestown Rural Fire Department, and Northern Plains Electric Cooperative. He’s known in the area for his beard and love of motorcycles, and often traveled on his Harley-Davidsons.
But the accident put an end to his motorcycle trips.
“They’re my toys, and I can’t play with them,” Carlson says.
That’s just one of the adjustments, great and small, he’s had to make since the accident. Carlson, who uses words carefully and well, struggles to describe his initial reaction to it .
“When I was in the hospital bed (shortly after the accident), I was - well, I really wasn’t angry,” he says. “I don’t know what to tell you. One nurse told me I was depressed. I said, no, I wasn’t depressed. I was (ticked) off.”
He pauses for a moment, then shrugs and says, “Something happened and you just have to change it. It could have been a heck of a lot worse. I still have the use of my arms.”
Carlson is also grateful for advancements in wheelchair technology. “If this had happened 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have had anything like this,” he says, and then demonstrates how the wheelchair works.
A new one-story, handicap-accessible house, built in 2012 on the site of his old house, which was razed, helps, too.
“I tell people that this might not be your idea of what a house should be,” he says. “But for me, it works. I also tell people I’m 100 percent self-sufficient. That’s a lie. I can’t do a few things, like change light bulbs, but I’m 95 percent.”
Richard lives in a different house on the same farmstead as Russell and comes to Russell’s place two or three times a day to help. Richard, who’s clearly proud of his brother, was present for much of Agweek’s visit with Russell but declined to comment for this article.
Russell says he wants to be treated “like a normal person.” Most people do that, although some “stare at you, or they completely ignore you. Or they go out of their way to help you.”
Little kids, in particular, aren’t sure what to make of him and his wheelchair, “which is understandable,” he says. “I tell them, you have to walk and I get to ride."
Carlson stops, searches for words and says, “Life isn’t the same. But you can’t turn back the clock. You have to deal with it.”
But farming remains part of his life, and that provides solace.
Carlson sits in his wheelchair in front of his house on a beautiful summer morning. The farmstead and green, growing crops surround him.
“No, life isn’t the same,” he says again. “But I still get to farm.”
'Still doing the things I want to do'
FREDERICK, S.D. - Cole Truebenbach loved agriculture, sports and the outdoors. He was full of energy and plans for the future. Then he drove his dirt bike over a hill, not realizing there was a 15-foot drop on the other side. The crash left him paralyzed from the chest down and put him in a wheelchair, most likely for the rest of his life.
But four years after the accident, he remains energetic and future-minded. And thanks in part to special equipment, ag and the outdoors remain part of his life. He’s launched his own business, which pumps manure from hog barns on to fields, and he continues to be active in his family’s business ventures, too.
“I’m still doing the things I want to,” says Truebenbach, 24.
He gives much of the credit to a motorized lift installed on the back of his pickup. The device, which he operates himself, takes him directly from his pickup or wheelchair to the cabs of tractors or other farm equipment.
“The lift really helps,” he says. “It helped me decide, I could still do the things I want to."
Truebenbach talked with Agweek by phone. He’s spending part of the summer at the Frazier Rehabilitation Center in Louisville, Ky., participating in the trial stages of a new program. The treatment, which includes 16 electrodes and epidermal implants in his stomach connected to his spinal cord, allowed him to wriggle his toes, among other temporary, limited mobility.
“I know it won’t get me out of the wheelchair,” he says of the program. But it should limit atrophy in his legs, which increases the odds that he would benefit from down-the-road medical breakthroughs.
Farm kid, athlete
Truebenbach grew up in Frederick, S.D., a farm town of 200 in Brown County. He was a good athlete and, like many athletic kids in small farm towns, played multiple sports in high school. He competed in baseball, football, basketball and track; football and baseball were his favorites, and he was best at track - “I was pretty fast,” he says.
Hunting and other outdoor activities were important to him, too.
And he enjoyed working in his family’s businesses, which include multiple hog operations, a truck wash and a grain elevator and feed mill.
But the accident threatened to end all that permanently. “I really struggled for six or seven months (after it happened.) I probably didn’t come out of my shell for a year,” he says.
Then he learned of the motorized lift and decided it might help him. So, he developed a plan for the manure-pumping business and presented it to South Dakota vocational rehabilitation officials. They liked it, and agreed to pay for the lift, which allows him to get to the cab of the tractor he uses in the business.
The lift was installed in 2014.
“There was some adjustment at first, but I’ve been spreading (manure) for two years now and I’m comfortable with it,” he says. “I’m used to it."
The lift also helps him get into the tractor cabs when he custom-bales and runs grain carts for neighbors.
Without the lift, “I wouldn’t be able to do that,” Treubenbach says. “If somebody threw me on their back and carried me up the tractor (steps), I could. But that would be about the only way, and I’m a 200-pound guy.”
Truebenbach’s father, Mitch, plans to retire within five years, and Cole says he looks forward to playing a greater role in the family businesses.
“I’ve always been involved in the hog industry, and I’ve always liked taking care of animals,” Cole says. “I’ve seen how successful (Mitch) has been in the business he started, and I want to help expand it.”
Truebenbach says he has “a great support system, my family and friends,” and people in the Frederick area generally have responded well to his disability.
What he doesn’t want is people “feeling sorry for me” or “thinking I’ve been in a wheelchair forever and that I don’t know anything about the hog industry. I’ve been in a pig barn my entire life; I’ve done the grunt work.”
The changes and challenges of the past four years - and in the years ahead - have taught Truebenbach that “life is different. But you can’t feel sorry for yourself. You can’t give up on yourself.”
'Help is available'
Bill Begley has stories - lots of them - about farmers with disabilities who stay active with the use of special equipment. Here’s one:
A farmer, in his early 50s and partially paralyzed, used the equipment (a motorized lift mounted on the back of a pickup) to get into a combine. “His smile lit up the place,” Begley says.
“His family told me, an hour earlier, he was shouting at them to leave him alone, that his life was over. He didn’t want their help or mine. But they convinced him to give it a try."
Begley is the sales manager for Brookston, Ind.-based Life Essentials, which provided the lifts for the three farmers profiled.
He’s helped farmers with disabilities nationwide, sometimes traveling thousands of miles in his pickup in a week to work with clients.
Begley’s message: “Don’t give up hope. Help is available.”
One of his company’s most useful, albeit expensive, products is a motorized lift installed on the back of a pickup. The lift transfers the farmer from the pickup seat directly into the cab of a tractor or combine. The cost is about $36,000 when installed at the company’s Indiana facility.
Farmers struggling with new or recent disabilities should consider reaching out to other ag producers with experience in dealing with their own disabilities, he says.
Begley also recommends farmers with disabilities contact their state vocational rehabilitation service.
Every state offers a vocational rehabilitation program. Though details and specifics vary from state to state, all the programs seek to help individuals with a disability, says Bernie Grimme, assistant director for the South Dakota program.
If a person with disabilities wants to farm, or to continue farming, the programs assess barriers and recommends different devices or ways of overcoming those barriers, Grimme says.
Mobility problems are one of the most common barriers for farmers with disabilities, he says.
Typically, a farmer who applies for help gets an answer within 60 days. The full process - which includes getting medical records, determining eligibility and significant impediment to employment, and developing a plan - can take two to four months, Grimme says.
Farmers “need to meet a financial threshold,” he says, noting some of the technology is expensive.
Even so, “Lifts (to help farmers into tractors and other farm equipment) are becoming more and more common,” Grimme says. “The technology has changed so significantly in the 20 years I’ve been doing this.”
Those numbers don’t include agriculturalists disabled in nonfarm accidents or from health problems unrelated to farming.
To learn more about how farmers and other agriculturalists with disabilities can stay active on the farm:
The National AgrAbility Project, sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It works to enhance the quality of life for farmers, ranchers and others in agriculture with disabilities, addressing conditions such as spinal cord injuries and amputation, as well as arthritis, back impairments and behavioral health issues, among others.
More information: agrability.org
Life Essentials, the Indiana-based company that provided the lift equipment used by the three farmers profiled by Agweek, has clients across the country.
More information: lifeessentialslifts.com
State vocational rehabilitation services, sometimes known simply as voc rehab, help farmers and others with disabilities.
South Dakota: dhs.sd.gov/drs/vocrehab/vr.aspx
North Dakota: nd.gov/dhs/dvr