Tennessee AgrAbility continues to help farmers, ranchers

New funds and new partner to bolster the statewide assistance program

A team approach helps the Tennessee AgrAbility Program provide services to farmers, farm family members and farm workers who may be dealing with a physical challenge in their farming operation. Members of the team include, from left to right, Troy Dugger, Tennessee AgrAbility Project director, University of Tennessee Extension; Joetta T. White, Western Region area Extension specialist for AgrAbility; Jennifer Cunningham, vice president of client services, the STAR Center in Jackson, Tennessee; Dave Bratcher, president, the STAR Center, Jackson, Tennessee; Eileen Legault, Eastern Region area Extension specialist for AgrAbility; Finis Stribling, III, Tennessee AgrAbility Project director, Tennessee State University Cooperative Extension; and Kim Lilley, executive director, Tennessee Technology Access Program, with the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

For more than 26 years, the Tennessee AgrAbility Project has been working to improve the lives of farmers, farm family members and farm workers who may be dealing with a physical challenge in their farming operation. A new influx of funding from the USDA and a new nonprofit partner organization will ensure the program’s continued impact and success into 2022 and beyond.

In November the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced an investment of more than $1.2 million initially, with possible follow-on investments totaling more than $5 million over four years, through USDA’s AgrAbility Program. Five agrability projects across the nation are included in the funding, and the Tennessee AgrAbility Project is one of the five recipients.

Tennessee AgrAbility is a collaboration between the University of Tennessee Extension, Tennessee State University Extension and NIFA. Tennessee AgrAbility assists farmers and farm workers with disabilities and their family members by providing support, resources and equipment that allow them to be independent and productive. The project’s mission is to enhance the quality of life for farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers with disabilities, so that they, their families, and their communities continue to succeed in the agricultural sector. Success may be defined by gainful employment in production agriculture or a related occupation; access to appropriate assistive technology needed for work and daily living activities; evidence-based information related to the treatment and rehabilitation of disabling conditions; and targeted support for family caregivers of AgrAbility customers. Since 1994, Tennessee AgrAbility has helped more than 1,200 Tennessee farmers.

In addition to this new funding from NIFA, Tennessee AgrAbility is also teaming with a new non-profit partner, The STAR Center in Jackson, Tennessee. From humble beginnings in borrowed space, located in the basement of West Jackson Elementary School, the STAR Center has impacted tens of thousands of families since their founding in 1998. The STAR Center was also recently awarded the Tennessee State Vocational Rehabilitation Services contract and went from a regional provider to a statewide provider of assisted technology resources starting October 1, 2021. As part of that responsibility, the Star Center now provides assistive technology, employment and educational training for Tennesseans with disabilities and now also covers all 95 counties like Extension does.

Troy Dugger, the Tennessee AgrAbility Project director with UT Extension, says “Tennessee AgrAbility will continue to reach farmers with disabilities statewide with our great team of partners and with the valuable new resources that the STAR Center provides. Among these are new occupational therapists, rehabilitation engineers and certified assistive technology professionals.”

“Our person-centered approach is one of the things that makes the STAR Center different. This is a recognition that we all are created unique and should be treated as such,” says Jennifer Cunningham, the Star Center’s vice president of client services.

Joetta T. White, Extension area specialist for AgrAbility in West Tennessee adds, “We see so much diversity in the farmers we help in their disabilities. AgrAbility can help the farmers, farm family members, youth, and farm employees. The possibilities are endless in helping farmers overcome their physical challenges, and we are happy to assist.”

AgrAbility services are meant to help all farmers with impairments and needs. There is no limit on the size of farm a producer owns to be considered for assistance in AgrAbility. Impairments include arthritis, spinal cord injuries, paralysis, back impairments, amputations, brain injury, visual impairments and hearing impairments, as well as other challenges.

Another part of AgrAbility is helping farmers who are military veterans, and who also wish to farm, gain the information and knowledge they need to do so. Eileen Legault, Extension area specialist in AgrAbility in East Tennessee, has worked with this group to officially form the Tennessee Chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) in partnership with their national organization. “I feel like Extension makes a difference across Tennessee, and I believe in the mission of AgrAbility. We appreciate the leadership of Kim Lilley, the Tennessee Technology Access Program executive director who helps mainstream assistive technology services statewide, and we look forward to helping more veteran farmers and farmers with disabilities with our new partner the Star Center,” Legault says.

AgrAbility also assists beginning farmers through the Tennessee New Farmer Academy at Tennessee State University. Finis Stribling, who started the academy, is also the Tennessee AgrAbility Project director for TSU Extension. He emphasizes the importance of utilizing AgrAbility, if needed, and all the assistive technology services available so farmers can continue doing what they love. “Plus, The Tennessee New Farmer Academy is an opportunity to introduce beginning farmers to a little bit of all types of Tennessee farming with hands-on experiences.”

Three Tennessee New Farmer academies across the state are now accepting new students for the March 2022 classes: tnstate.edu/extension/NFA.aspx

To learn more about the National AgrAbility Project visit www.agrability.org and to learn about the Tennessee AgrAbility Project visit agrability.tennessee.edu.

Through its land-grant mission of research, teaching and service, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. utia.tennessee.edu.