Colorado ‘AgrAbility’ program helps people with disabilities work in agriculture

“We find that a lot of people with disabilities have problems handing traditionally large livestock. Cows and horses are big animals, and if you have mobility issues or balance issues, and you can’t get out of the way of a cow who wants to go where you are, he’s going to hurt you.”

by Marjorie Haun

Colorado is one of many states with an ‘AgrAbility’ program which, according to its stated mission is “part of a national effort to help farmers and ranchers affected by an injury, long-term illness, or other functional limitation. Our goal is to help people remain involved in agricultural work by providing assistance, information, and education.”

Initiated in the 1990 Farm Bill, and designed to promote independence in people who have worked, or who want to work, in agriculture, ranching, or related fields, the Colorado AgrAbility project is facilitated by experts in occupational therapy, physical therapy, medicine, psychology, and other services. Its outreach meeting, held in Grand Junction, Colorado on October 25th, was lead by Candiss Leathers, a farmer and physical therapist, and James Craig, a psychologist and rural rehabilitation specialist, with a background in Military service, and of working with veterans’ advocacy groups.

Candiss Leathers, Ted Dittmer

According to Jim Craig, “AgrAbility is a program that has been in Colorado for 20 years. It’s based upon a US Department of Agriculture grant, and the purpose of it is to assist people who are farmers or ranchers, and who are experiencing some sort of a physical or behavioral limitation that impedes them from being successful on their farms or ranches.”

Jim Craig, rural rehabilitation specialist

Craig described the various challenges and potential dangers facing those with physical limitations who still want to pursue farming and ranching; “We find that a lot of people with disabilities have problems handing traditionally large livestock. Cows and horses are big animals, and if you have mobility issues or balance issues, and you can’t get out of the way of a cow who wants to go where you are, he’s going to hurt you.” But, Craig explained, there are practical solutions available in the livestock industry. He continued, “You may be able to handle sheep or goats. We have a lot of our clients with disabilities, or problems with balance or dexterity, who have gone into raising sheep or goats; a lot do it for meat, some for fiber, some for cheese. There’s an entire industry in smaller livestock.”

This little-known program has made a world of difference to those who have benefited from its services, which includes providing adaptive equipment–both simple and technical–to farmers who need help performing daily tasks. The program also connects its clients with psychological services, and care-giver support. The host family, Ted and Priscilla Dittmer, who have a small farm in Western Colorado, have been able to live the farm life they love with help from the program.

Ted Dittmer demonstrates his mobility/lift chair obtained with the help of the Colorado AgrAbility Program

Ted Dittmer was once an active diesel mechanic who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Wanting to remain independent, he and his wife, Priscilla bought a small farm, where they have raised hay and kept a few animals. AgrAbility helped Mr. Dittmer obtain a standing mobility chair, which, for awhile, helped him get into his tractor. With the MS gradually worsening over time, Dittmer and his wife have focused on smaller tasks such as raising chickens, and growing vegetables and lavender on their property.

Robert Andrews, Marine vet and owner of Rocky Mountain Golden Fleece

Robert Andrews, a Marine Corps veteran, who, in his own words, ‘has been blown up three times’ and suffers from some physical impairments due to this combat-related injuries, has used AgrAbility to transition from military life to sheep ranching in the tiny town of Mack, Colorado. With a desire to serve others after dealing with his own adversity, Andrews wants to use his farm to help other small wool growers succeed. He said, “Rocky Mountain Golden Fleece” is the name of our business, and what I would like to do is unite the smaller wool growers, especially in Western Colorado, so we can work together to get our product to market, and expand our base in craft textiles, fashion, and other areas now dominated by the big wool operations.” His vision goes beyond just giving new ranchers and small operators a helping hand, to making a lasting impact on the regional wool industry. Andrews went on to say, “By uniting everyone it will give us much more leverage, and bring more awareness to the wool industry on the Western Slope, with the goal of making it a profitable entity for everyone involved.”

Free Range Report asked Andrews about his dual roles as a Military veteran with physical disabilities, and a novice sheep rancher as related to the AgrAbility program, and he said, “I see myself as introducing people to programs like this one, and other state and USDA programs such as the Farm Services Agency, which has some wonderful programs that allow veterans to get into agriculture fairly easily.  You can get low-interest loans for property and equipment acquisitions, and the programs can work with local banks and local property owners to give veterans, like myself, a start in farming or ranching.”

AgrAbility and other programs like it are able to accommodate the needs of more people, in part, because of the adaptive technologies available today. Beyond track chairs that help ranchers navigate rugged terrain, and lift chairs that can help a farmer get into a tractor or combine, there are prototypes for remote-controlled mowing machines, and other farm implements that can be operated literally from the back porch. Drones are already used in farming and ranching to inspect crops, count livestock, and generally troubleshoot whatever problems may arise.

Although farming and ranching will always have some physically demanding and risky components, people with disabilities now have more access to the industry than ever before. With advancing farm technologies, and programs such as AgrAbility, available to those who have a passion for working with animals and growing things out of the dirt, the promises appear to be far greater than the limitations.

You can find out more about Colorado AgrAbility and related programs by going here.


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