Willing and Able

Farming has always been a way of life, as well as an occupation, that values the family working together for a common goal. When a family member is affected by a severe disability, this way of life is challenged. In the United States, agricultural production is consistently ranked in the top three most hazardous occupations, with the highest disabling injury rate of any industry.

— Easter Seals of Wisconsin FARM Program

The farm-to-table, co-producer and meet-the-farmer movements have deepened our basic knowledge of sustainable agriculture, our appreciation for how our food is grown and raised and who does it. But the emphasis in that relationship has been on the food more than on the farmer. Buying locally, shopping at farmers’ markets and patronizing restaurants that use local ingredients are all meaningful methods of supporting farmers. But sometimes the challenges of remaining on the farm go beyond the economics of the marketplace. Sometimes what’s needed most is help with the physical demands of the job.

The Easter Seals of Wisconsin FARM Program was created in 1990 in response to an unmet community need: helping farmers and their families deal with the effects of a disability. It’s recognition that unlike people in the general population coping with an illness or injury, farmers are often isolated from services that could help them. Too many farmers then risk further injury by trying to continue in a demanding agriculture lifestyle.

The FARM Program was created to help these farmers continue their life and love of the farm. The program works in partnership with AgrAbility, the federally funded collaboration of the UW–Extension and the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Currently twenty-one states get funding. Easter Seals of Wisconsin’s FARM Program is the only continually funded AgrAbility program in the United States.

Paul Leverenz oversees the FARM program as vice president for vocational services for Easter Seals of Wisconsin, and he clearly appreciates the unique population he serves. Their deep connection to the land influences how they view disabilities.

“If it’s something you love, you’re going to be able to work longer, despite a disability, because of your mental desire to do the work,” says Leverenz. “That mental desire is rooted in the connection to the land and the spirit of the rural environment.”

He says the rural community is small but broad and very tight-knit. A “program with a brochure” isn’t going to cut it with these folks. Trust in, and loyalty to, the FARM program is based on its success: it currently serves about 480 people in the state each year, and a remarkable ninety-seven percent are still continuing to farm ten years after starting with FARM. Leverenz says it’s about making “real and meaningful change for people,” and he credits strong partnerships and practical resources like funding special equipment and production modifications.

And that’s when the principle of sustainability is transferred from the land to the FARM program. Fundraising for the program is challenging, says Leverenz, with the demand for service growing beyond the ability to meet the need. But farmers know what it’s like to support each other. Leverenz tells the story of one farmer who told him, “I knew about AgrAbility, but I didn’t pay much attention because I was a healthy guy.” Until he fell while putting up a pole building. “And now I’m one of those guys.”

So a group of former clients is working together on a beef sale event to benefit the FARM program. Two farmers donated five Holstein steers. Former FARM client Mike Hansen, one of the eight certified organic family farms that make up Good Earth Farms, will distribute the processed meat as he does his own pastured-raised meats sometime in late July or early August. All of the money raised will be used directly for the purposes of helping farmers with disabilities in the state of Wisconsin. Leverenz is looking for major sponsors for the FARM program and would welcome any interest.

Details on the program and the fundraiser can be found at http://farm.eastersealswisconsin.com.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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