Agency’s mission is to ‘keep people farming’

RONALD CORNWELL, who farms near Arlington, has MS and relies on the use of a wheelchair, which is not always practical when he is traveling around his farm. He is shown looking over a new scooter he received from Ohio AgrAbility, a partnership with Ohio State University and Easter Seals that provides assistance to disabled farmers. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

RONALD CORNWELL, who farms near Arlington, has MS and relies on the use of a wheelchair, which is not always practical when he is traveling around his farm. He is shown looking over a new scooter he received from Ohio AgrAbility, a partnership with Ohio State University and Easter Seals that provides assistance to disabled farmers. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By SARA ARTHURS
Staff Writer
Farming is hard work, and even harder should the farmer have a disability.
Ronald Cornwell, of rural Arlington, has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. Thanks to Ohio AgrAbility, a partnership between Ohio State University and Easter Seals that provides assistance to disabled farmers, he has received a new scooter that will allow him to more easily travel around his farm and work on the equipment in his shop.
Cornwell and his brother, Dale, farm corn, wheat and soybeans on a 465-acre farm that has been in their family for generations. Cornwell’s great-grandfather bought 40 acres in 1912 and the farm has gradually grown since then.
Cornwell, 61, was diagnosed with MS in 1991 but had had symptoms for a few years before that. He has been in a wheelchair since about 2006 due to the effects of the disease.
“Everything from the waist down does not work,” he said.
In his house, Cornwell can get around in a manual wheelchair, and he has had a powered wheelchair that allows him to drive his van. His daughter assists him with getting in and out of the chair. He has devised ways to get around, including building a lift that allows him to get from his house to the ground level of his garage.
However, the new scooter will provide “more mobility outside,” he said. One difference is that the power chair he previously had to use has a tendency to catch on things, while the new scooter won’t. The new scooter will allow him to get to the shop and work with the farm equipment and machinery, he said. It elevates, making it possible to reach higher shelves, and has bigger wheels better designed for rough terrain.
Cornwell’s jobs include selling grain and buying fertilizers, chemicals and seed. He wanted to be able to do more of his share of the workload with his brother.
“I’ve always been able to do stuff and I can’t do it anymore,” he said.
Nationally, AgrAbility exists in more than 20 states as a partnership between a land-grant university and a nonprofit organization.
Josh Svarda, manager of community employment with Easter Seals, said Ohio AgrAbility is always looking for new farmers to help. Disabled farmers or family members can contact Ohio AgrAbility through its website.
Svarda and John Zeller, rural rehabilitation coordinator, are based out of Easter Seals’ Cincinnati office. Zeller, however, travels the state working with Ohio’s farmers. The mission is to “keep people farming,” Svarda said.
Agriculture is the leading employer in the state and the average age of farmers is just over 58, Zeller said. He said arthritis is very prevalent in Ohio’s farmers.
Zeller said it’s a privilege to meet farmers and he always learns from them. He met Cornwell on his farm about four years ago.
“We’ve worked with him ever since,” he said.
Zeller said Cornwell’s new mobility scooter is “farm-grade” and was designed by a person who doesn’t have legs. The scooter was paid for with funding Easter Seals received through the Ohio Attorney General’s office in a program known as AG4Ag, Zeller said.
“I haven’t paid a dime for it,” Cornwell said.
AgrAbility does not itself fund any equipment, “but what we do is we go out and help find grants, help find funding,” said Andy Bauer, educational program coordinator for Ohio AgrAbility at Ohio State University in Columbus.
Bauer said the program started nationally in 1991 and this is the fifth year it’s existed in Ohio. A federal grant pays for the national program.
The goal is to provide education, resources and technical assistance for farmers and their families “so they can keep going,” Bauer said.
Assistance can vary depending on what’s needed. The same day Ohio AgrAbility delivered Cornwell’s scooter, they delivered a lift to another client that will allow him to get out of his wheelchair and into a tractor.
Farming is considered the third most dangerous occupation in the country, Bauer said, but the cause of a person’s disability is not necessarily from farming. He has worked with farmers who are paraplegics, quadriplegics and amputees as well as those with health conditions like arthritis.
“Farming’s their life, for most of them,” he said.
Bauer, who grew up on a farm and previously managed a grain elevator before retiring from that position, said he learned growing up on a farm that “most farmers never actually retire.” However, as they get older they are more likely to have health problems, he said.
He has also met younger farmers with disabilities. At a national training workshop for AgrAbility, he met a farmer from Illinois who is in his 40s but had had a stroke and is in a wheelchair. He too received a lift so he can get into his tractor.
Bauer said Ohio AgrAbility is available to farmers anywhere in the state as well as their caregivers. The program has worked with autistic adults in group homes to help them learn gardening skills.
Svarda said Easter Seals serves adults and children with disabilities. As part of Ohio AgrAbility, Easter Seals will do farm assessments as well as providing technology and education.
What they’ve found, Svarda said, is “The disabilities range but the jobs don’t.” Regardless of a farmer’s disability, they still need to get the tasks done, he said.
Zeller said farmers with disabilities may struggle more than other farmers with “environmental challenges” dictated by the seasons. For example, this past winter farmers who had livestock out in the fields would need to keep their ponds from freezing.
Ohio AgrAbility is currently working with the University of Dayton and the Dayton Veteran Affairs Hospital to design a greenhouse for veterans who do not have the use of their legs to remain active and earn income. The veterans will be able to float over the greenhouse in a suspension system university personnel are designing.
Svarda said OSU provides a lot of resources, and when they need further assistance they can send information to AgrAbility programs in other states, to see if someone can brainstorm an idea to keep that person farming.
Zeller said Ohio AgrAbility also has a peer-to-peer network where a farmer with a specific injury might talk to someone else in the same situation.
“They give each other hope and encouragement,” he said.
Online: http://agrability.osu.edu/ Arthurs: 419-427-8494 Send an E-mail to Sara Arthurs

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