A study recently published in The Journal of Agriculture Safety and Health is shedding light on a community of farmers not often discussed. According to this study, as many as one in five farmers in the United States has a disability.
The umbrella of disability in this study is a wide one. For that 20% figure, researchers included disabilities that impacted the farmers’ physical health, senses, or cognition. To combat the obstacles farmers with disabilities face, a wide variety of assistive agricultural technology exists.
These technologies include four-wheel-drive golf carts, auto-locking tractor hitches, and smart tech connected to smartphones. Agricultural equipment companies have been making traditional tractors for decades. Legacy companies like Kubota have been making agricultural equipment since 1890 and commercially developed Japan’s first farm tractor. However, assistive modifications to tractors have been appearing much more recently.
One of the most significant modifications is motorized tractor lifts. Ed Bell is just one farmer who uses those lifts in the day-to-day operation of his hog farm in Indiana. Bell was shot in 1982 and paralyzed from the torso down. He’s able to successfully work his farm today with his electric wheelchair outfitted with off-roading treads, another wheelchair that allows him to stand, and mechanical lifts that he can operate by hand to get in and out of his tractors.
Thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act and a growing empathy for differently abled Americans, modern workplaces have become much more accessible in the past few decades. However, many farmers are self-employed, which means it’s up to them to find accessibility solutions. These solutions can have a wide range of benefits. Researchers from Exeter University’s School of Psychology recently found that employees who have control over the design and layout of their workspace are up to 32% more productive — not to mention happier and healthier at work. Of course, funding these changes and purchasing specialty equipment can be a major barrier.
Agricultural is an industry infamous for being a bit cash-strapped, but a federally-funded program called AgrAbility has been helping farmers with disabilities get the assistance they need for almost 25 years. AgrAbility features an entire Assistive Technology Database, which is an index of over 1,400 vetted solutions for a variety of problems. There are many easy-grip hand tools for those with arthritis, telescoping technology to tend to fruit trees, and an array of customized tractor lifts, cranes, and cherrypickers.
Providing all of this modified technology is essential in making sure that the agricultural industry is able to sustain its part in the national economy. In 2015, farms contributed approximately $136.7 billion of the U.S. gross domestic product, or about 1% of the nation’s GDP.
Even beyond new agricultural tech that makes it possible for farmers with disabilities to work, the industry is seeing modern advancements. Self-driving tractors to speed up harvest times are in production by major companies and agronomic data technology is coming about to assist farmers in optimizing their workload. According to a survey conducted last year by Caledonia Solutions, about 25% of large farming operations were investing more in these developing technologies.