Colorado AgrAbility Project helps Colorado man farm, despite being paralyzed from the waist down
Future in limbo
The Colorado AgrAbility program is a federally funded project, and was one of the programs President Donald Trump proposed to cut from the federal budget.
“Both the House and the Senate put AgrAbility back in, so we’re hopeful both the house and the senate, when they pass the overall bill, they’ll have AgrAbility in it,” said Robert J. Fetsch, professor and Extension specialist emeritus at Colorado State University.
For more information
To read more about the program, go to agrability.agsci.colostate.edu.
One of the ways the AgrAbility program reaches out to people who want to learn more about the program is through workshops, which normally include at least one farmer who has utilized the Colorado AgrAbility program.
Nov. 29 Sterling workshop, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Logan County Extension Office, 508 S. 10th Avenue #1, Sterling, CO 80751. To register contact Candy Leathers at (970) 539-4435 or James Craig at (720) 737-3686.
All are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Feb. 2: Arapahoe County Fairgrounds & Event Center, Room 1, 25690 East Quincy Ave., Aurora, CO 80016, Johnathan Vrabac (303) 730-1920 or (719) 661-2286
Feb. 6: 539 Barclay St., Craig, CO 81625, JD Sexton (970) 826-3402
Feb. 7: County Courthouse, 501 Palmer St., Delta, CO 81416, Room 234, Doug Dean (970) 244-1834
Feb. 8: Southwest Colorado Community College, ITC Building, 33057 Highway 160, Mancos, CO 81328, Tom Hooten (970) 565-3123
Feb. 12: SW Weld County Service Center, 4209 County Road 24½. Greeley, CO, Keith Maxey (970) 304-6535 ex. 2075
Feb 14: County Extension Office, 701 Court St., Pueblo, CO 81003, Tom Laca (719) 583-6566.
Jerry Michel used to lift himself into his truck with his arms before he drove out to his field in Atwood, Colo. He knew it was hurting his shoulders, but without the use of his legs, it was the only way he got into his truck. He’s a truck man.
He doesn’t look right behind the wheel of anything else.
Michel was thankful for the chance to work behind a truck for many years: He farmed for a living despite a car crash that left him paralyzed below the waist. Twenty years ago, when he decided he was going to farm from his wheelchair, he worked with the Colorado AgrAbility Project for the first time. The program, which is a partnership between Goodwill Denver and Colorado State University, helps people with disabilities work and live on a farm.
Years later, in 2016, all that lifting caught up to him, as he knew it would. He needed surgery on both shoulders. He couldn’t keep lifting himself with his upper body, even after he healed from the surgery. It would only be a matter of time before he injured himself again.
Yet he still wanted to farm, and by this point, he had to drive around in a van because it was easier for him to get into. The van wasn’t working for him. It didn’t do well on all those rugged roads that surrounded his farm. Plus it just didn’t feel right.
He’s a truck man.
Michel and his wife, Lori, were visiting her parents during the summer 1981 in Hawaii. They were on a break from school at Northeastern Junior College, where they met.
Michel laid down in the back of a pick-up for a snooze; when he woke up, he couldn’t walk.
The brakes went out, and the truck crashed into a utility pole.
He woke up in the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down. He spent the next three months stuck in Hawaii recuperating. When he was finally able to get back to Colorado, he went to Craig Hospital, a place known for its neuro-rehabilitation and spinal cord injury research. He was there for a few more months, learning how to live his new life in a wheelchair. It’s now his old life. He’s adjusted to many things. But he would have to learn, years later, how to adjust once again.
DREAM TO FARM
Michel wasn’t in charge of the family farm in Atwood. He was in school studying accounting when he was in the crash. That was OK. He didn’t need to walk to be an accountant. There was only one problem: Accounting was boring.
“He hated it,” Lori said.
So for a while he and Lori had a soil-, feed- and water-testing lab. That lasted for a while, but then they started their family, which led to Lori being home more. Michel never forgot the farm. There was only one problem: It was hard to be a farmer from a wheelchair.
About 20 years ago he reached out to the AgrAbility program. Colorado AgrAbility is a federal grant-based program based out of Perdue University. The grants are disbursed every four years to the states that need them most.
Colorado’s program started about the same time Michel reached out. The program has changed since Michel first heard about it through a friend.
Before he was put on a first-come-first serve waiting list to get someone to come out to his farm. That’s followed, if needed, by a grant application process to pay for equipment to help him.
Now, through the partnership with Goodwill Denver, there are caseworkers that still meet with the individuals, but there’s no longer a waiting list for those who need help.
In 2016, with his shoulders now a mess, Michel once again called AgrAbility, and that’s when he was connected with Candiss Leathers.
During her visit to the farm, she saw a lot of potential changes, large and small, which would help Jerry continue to farm.
Her first recommendation was a power track chair that lifts him into a standing position. This allows him to look into grain bins easier than lifting himself up, by the shoulders, to see in. Michel will test it out once his shoulders heal.
The second problem was a bit more taxing. He still needed a vehicle to get around besides the van. He bought a new, silver truck, and modified it through the AgrAbility program that allows him to wheel into the truck, still in his chair, and slip into the driver’s seat.
But AgrAbility takes a look at all aspects of a farmer’s life. In fact, Leathers said many cases don’t need large fixes, such as a new, modified truck, to help the farmer.
Leathers also suggested things such as a garage door opener that he can keep with him on his tractor.
There was an automatic opener by the door, but that meant getting in and out of the tractor and putting another strain on his shoulders. Michel did that for years, or he would call Lori for help.
But that’s why the in-person visit is important, Leathers said. It allows her to see what the farmers do and how they operate. Things like opening a gate might not seem like an immediate need, but Leathers’ job is to make sure she can make recommendations for all facets of his life.
“Although it can take some time … The outcome is so beneficial for independence and remaining engaged in the vocation you’ve chosen,” Leathers said.
With his shoulder surgeries,
Michel knew he had to hire someone to take over. But that didn’t make handing the reigns over to do a majority of the work on his 100-acre farm any easier.
He constantly checks in now, almost to an annoying degree. He might need to hire out again next year.
But he also knows if he doesn’t jump back into farming prematurely, he shouldn’t have to worry about another set of wear-and-tear surgeries from overexerting himself. Once his shoulders heal, he can take full advantage of the track chair during harvest. He won’t have to lift himself into his truck either.
AgrAbility helped him find solutions. Leathers said that’s something she keeps in mind when working with farmers. It’s not a matter of can they work or not. It’s a matter of how. That comes from a culture of independence that farming fosters.
But Michel still wants to get some of that independence back.
That’s why he had to give some of it up, at least temporarily.
“It’s going to help him really maintain his independence. That’s the main thing,” Lori said, “He hates having to wait for somebody else to do something.”
But for things like waiting for his shoulder to heal or waiting for a grant for a laser woodcutter to come through, he’s patient. He said he became a patient person after the crash.
What helps him is the knowledge that all this waiting will payoff in the long run.
With a lift, he will get into his tractor without putting more strain on his shoulders. And at the end of a workday he will drive the tractor back into the garage with the ease of a button.
And, probably most importantly, at least to him and who he is as a farmer — he’ll drive around behind the wheel of his truck.
— Fox is a reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at (970) 392-4410, email@example.com or on Twitter @FoxonaFarm.
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign SB 21-87, known as the Farm Workers Bill of Rights, though much of the content will be decided through the rulemaking process.