AgrAbility keeps injured farmers in business

WEST ADDISON — Can a farmer sustain a life-changing injury and keep working in agriculture?
Lee Kayhart, Merton Pike and Kenny Young provide living testimony that the answer is yes.
The three long-time Vermont farmers spoke at the Kayhart Brothers Dairy in West Addison this past Thursday at a Farmer’s Field Day, sponsored by UVM Extension’s AgrAbility Project.
Kayhard, 67, of West Addison lost both arms in an accident more than three decades ago and returned to work but a few months later. Young, a Springfield resident, became paralyzed from the waist down nine years ago and is still farming. Pike, now 96, lost both legs in a farm accident in 1971. The Stowe resident not only kept farming, but also played a part in helping other farmers overcome disabilities by helping to get Vermont’s AgrAbility Project off the ground.
The day-long program, which drew more than 50 people, included guest speakers; a showing of the informational film “It Can’t Happen to Me” featuring the stories of Vermont farmers who kept farming after sustaining life-altering injuries; interactive presentations on adaptive equipment; and exhibitors with informational booths on farming, farm health and safety, veterans issues, disability rights, independent living, and adaptive farming equipment and other aids to accessibility.
Staff members from the UVM Extension and from the Vermont Center for Independent Living were on hand to answer questions and direct attendees to state and local resources. The USDA-funded AgrAbility program is jointly administered by UVM Extension and VCIL.
Farming is a dangerous occupation. Agriculture (together with related occupations in forestry, fishing and hunting) consistently tops the charts in federal Bureau of Labor fatality statistics. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nationwide about 167 agricultural workers sustain injuries every day.
Kayhart is living proof that one can keep farming and farm successfully despite injuries that some might see as completely disabling.
In 1984, Kayhart lost both arms in a farming accident. During his long hospital stay, physicians, physical therapists and other recovery specialists repeatedly coached Kayhart to give up farming and “do something more achievable.” He refused to listen. Injured in January, Kayhart was back in the fields by May.
Today his sons Steve and Tim run the dairy, which over the 31 years since Kayhart’s accident has grown from one employee and 121 cows to 13 employees and a herd of close to 800.
Using only one prosthetic arm outfitted with a hook, his two deft feet and both shoulders, there’s not a piece of farm equipment Kayhart can’t operate. On display at the event were three of the farm’s adapted vehicles: a forage harvester, a hay mower and a tractor. The cab of each hulking machine is specially outfitted with a series of operational buttons on the floor and what’s called a driving ring, a sturdy metal ring attached to the steering wheel. To steer the vehicle, Kayhart simply hooks the driving ring. To operate the different control buttons on the standard issue joy stick, he might use his shoulder, knee, or the series of buttons on the floor.
The tractor is additionally outfitted with a metal bar that extends one of the standard hand-operated gear shifts to shoulder level. The metal extension bar is padded all around with nothing fancier than a garden hose — a testament to farmer thriftiness, resourcefulness and ingenuity. Indeed, Kayhart estimates that in the three decades since the accident he hasn’t spent more than $2,500 on adaptive equipment overall.
“The first driving ring I bought they charged me $600,” Kayhart said. “I haven’t paid more than $100 for one ever since.”
Rather than purchasing specially adapted vehicles or equipment, over the years Kayhart has simply worked with local equipment dealers and machinists to modify equipment. He also noted that as newer tractors are becoming more and more programmable, the increasing sophistication of this electronic technology could benefit farmers needing adaptive machinery.
At Thursday’s event, Kayhart spoke from the heart about his love of farming, his pride in his sons’ taking over the farm, and his joy in living. He encouraged attendees to never give up. Pat Kayhart, his wife of 47 years, talked about what a difference a supportive community made in the early days after the accident. Neighboring farmers took on farm tasks and kept the operation running, family members looked after the Kayharts’ three children, and folks from the Kayharts’ church brought meals almost every day.
Among other guest speakers were Jon Turner and Cameron McMahon, who are both veterans of the U.S. Marines and who served in Iraq/Afghanistan and other overseas postings. The Bristol men addressed the importance of turning veterans into farmers.
Turner used his own life and service experience to describe how a life in agriculture can provide a viable living that also helps returning service persons reintegrate into daily living and overcome war-related injuries. He feels that farming can be especially important to veterans recovering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Turner operates the Wild Roots Farm and is engaged in starting up a Vermont chapter of the national Farmer Veteran Coalition, which seeks to engage returning veterans in agriculture. Founders of the nonprofit, which started in 2006, were in part motivated by the high ratios nationwide of persons enlisting from rural areas.
George Cook, UVM Extension farm safety expert and director of the AgrAbility Project, stressed that the project’s free services are available not just to those with catastrophic injuries, but also to farmers facing any of a range of issues, including arthritis, respiratory diseases, back injury and chronic illnesses.
“A lot of farmers are missing digits,” Cook noted.
He urged farm workers, current farmers, or those wanting to go into agriculture to contact him at his office in Morrisville; the toll-free phone number is 1-866-260-5603.
“We’ll put you in touch with the right resources — the Vermont Center for Independent Living, the Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Farm First,” he said.
“We have farmers out there with severe disabilities, and they continue to farm and to see a prosperous future in farming. Never say never.”

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