Farming with Disabilities – Mother Earth News

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It’s the middle of summer. However, the barn in which the sheep spend the winter must be raked. Three piglets used the space before being put in the hay meadow. Nothing much different about this mopping chore, except Paul, 51, does it using one arm and only enough vision to see through a pinhole.

Paul has cerebral palsy and uses a walker. He lives in a life-sharing community called Innisfree Village on 550 acres in Crozet, Va., and he can only ride an all-terrain vehicle (RTV) on weekly job sites after donning elbow pads and a full-face helmet. The cows know his voice, however, and after checking the water for the sheep, farm managers Nich Traverse and Tim Wool leave Paul to his own devices. Paul explains: “I scrape the hay like this, and I have an orange wheelbarrow to fill to make compost.

For people with disabilities, homesteading can appear as another system designed to exclude. However, whether they’re growing produce, making clothes, or raising livestock, Paul and others are proving it can be done, and with benefits. At Innisfree, people with disabilities are designated colleagues. Each helps produce a product at a specific workstation – namely, a weaving, lumber shop, herb and vegetable garden, and bakery – in addition to hammering fence posts and collecting eggs.

man in a red shirt sifting compost in a greenhouse

“We don’t allow productivity to negatively impact people’s experience,” says Rorie Hutter, executive director. “We want things to have value because they’re useful or enjoyable, and so we do them in a non-automated way to preserve that. On the contrary, each step represents skill building.

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As a professor of agriculture and primary industries at St. Paul’s College in Kempsey, Australia, Graham Bramley also embraces functional learning. On his beef farm and on a fellow farmer’s 40,000-acre sheep operation, he prefers to repair or adapt the tools and equipment he uses.

woman washing green vegetables

When Bramley was 15, he was involved in a car accident that amputated several fingers and nearly severed his left arm. Bramley says, “There is an innate desire in people to raise plants or animals, and people with disabilities have the same needs and interests. … You can set up a farm for someone with reduced mobility with paths, ramps and doors that they can open, or raised beds that they can access from a chair,” he says. But, he points out, for those just starting out, “don’t wait. Get what you can afford and challenge perceived norms when it suits you.

Back to these piglets: They originally arrived at Innisfree from Landon Farm in Virginia, where Jennifer Sisney and her partner, John, 53, are building infrastructure to supply their store with eggs, meat and dairy from their chickens, goats and cows. . John was born blind and every day he accepts obstacles rather than navigating them, whether he’s climbing onto a rooftop or clearing steep mountain trails. “Just have a dream – then find ways to do things as you go,” he says.

man raking hay in barn

The dignity of risk

Innisfree Village was envisioned in 1971 by a group of parents to serve as an alternative to longevity care for their children as disabled adults.

The original 400 acres included Walnut Level Farm and several outbuildings. Today it includes over 400 free-range chickens, around 40 sheep, 70 grass-fed Black Angus and Red Devon breeding cows, and non-breeding cows that give birth to 10-20 calves a year. Cows and turkeys are slaughtered for village consumption or sold alive. The idea is to use therapeutic strategies to fuel a regenerative low-input agricultural system.

Freedom of movement is paramount not only for the animals but also for the residents and is part of the integration of the concept of “dignity of risk”, which means that those who live with a disability should be able to make choices and suffer from them. the consequences, even if these consequences are difficult, and this risk is part of the engagement with the land or with traditional craftsmanship.

“The phrase describes what we do so well,” says Traverse. “We want things to be safe for everyone – but we’re not always looking for ways to make things easier. We let people be as capable as they are.

A compromise used at Innisfree is an egg washing machine. This is how two people, with a working arm between them, can prepare the 120 dozen sold in the local markets. In the fields, what is important is that colleagues perform all parts of a task.

The passions, talents and needs of the people of the village have also always guided the vegetable garden workstation, where Connie Welsh, the workstation manager, says her biggest challenge is not breaking down barriers; rather, “It’s really just weeds.” Her strategies include using bean beds so Katie, 49, who has Down syndrome, can sit on a rolling seat, insert a planting stick into loose soil, lay seedlings, cover and repeat . This is a commonly used adaptation for those with dexterity issues.

Ultimately, Welsh believes trusting your body in your work environment has the biggest positive impact. “I think a raised bed is a great idea, but it would be a huge undertaking just to build it,” she says. Highlighting Marny, 66, who has worked at Innisfree since 1976, working in a grove of tomato plants, she says: “You can feel the maturity and learn the lay of the land.

man and woman making handmade pies in a kitchen

Start small and grow

Back at Landon Farm, on 50 acres of mixed woods, rotational grazing methods of meat and goat and dairy herds keep John busy, despite his 8% eyesight. John and Jennifer raise Freedom Ranger chickens and Ossabaw Island pigs in addition to tending the blueberries, fruit trees, campgrounds and garden at their Blue Ridge property.

At school, John had to figure out on his own how to work smarter because teachers were “still trying to figure out what to do with a kid like me,” he says. “I had to get closer to everything.”

Today, he applies this tactic to operating a handsaw or leveling steep driveways, and he argues that his carpentry work is more, not less, precise because he has to feel out the measurements. “Whether it’s a tape measure or whatever, you have to surrender to what you’re looking at,” he says. “When people cut a board, they mark it. But I don’t have to mark it every time.

Cutting down trees for use around the property is a big job, but overall the homesteading aspects of Landon Farm are done on a small scale. As their priorities evolved, their focus shifted to the general relationship between agriculture and the surrounding environment.

“We use biodynamic methods, such as multi-species grazing, to reduce animal stress,” says Jennifer.

For this couple, homesteading isn’t about making big bucks, and there’s no final design. “Our goal is to provide our community with better choices, to do a bit of everything, and to have enough for our family,” she says.

man sanding a piece of round wood

Old tools, new tricks

In the world of extendable trowels and rakes, adaptive cultivators and even more DIY approaches to reducing your hand fatigue, Bramley is still a minimalist when it comes to farm tools. “I don’t really adjust anything,” he says. “I collect different things for different jobs and take good care of them. Some tools can only be used once a year, but if they’re in the toolbox, that means I can fix them. »

Bramley also had to relearn how to farm after his accident, so his father offered some simple chores. “Basically anything that involved operating machinery, like tractors and front-end loaders; then I continued to drive the truck as my injured left hand became more useful.

Bramley was told he would not be able to pass the Australian chainsaw certification. “The instructor said, ‘You can’t hold a saw’ with a hand like mine, but I used one on the farm,” he says. Bramley says it’s important to find your allies and become a defender. “What happened to me was hard to accept at 15, but now I use what the movement offers.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2020, and while many apps and programs, such as the National AgrAbility Project, now exist, many solutions and printed materials preceded these modern resources.

“You can see miracles with technology, but there are many different ways to solve the problems of someone trying to do something complex with a disability,” says Traverse.

man and woman standing on either side of a row of yellow flower bushes

Your own experience

Without strict standards or roadmaps to success covering all venues and all boundaries, how do you get started?

Bramley’s take: “Caring for animals takes knowledge and experience, but poultry and vegetables complement each other and are ideal for learning. As you become confident, you can add more companies. The more companies you can layer, the better. »

“There’s no clear set of tools that will magically improve it, because so much of what we do is team-based,” Wool says. “Colleagues love taking care of animals. This is the basis of the farm workstation. Setting everything up is based on your goals.

Bramley says the advantage of regenerative agriculture is that it can be adapted to everyone. “It’s not like organic farming, where you have to respect certain particular clauses. Practitioners focus on what they can change to benefit the ecosystem in which they operate.

As the cold weather approaches in Innisfree, Paul switches from raking hay to collecting firewood with his wheelbarrow. Jumping over the door of a lambing pen to join Paul, who is waiting in the RTV, Wool says, finally, “There is no limit to belief.”

Save the chickens for the laid back layers

For people with disabilities, chickens can be one of the best farming options. The birds themselves are light, portable, and require minimal housing and equipment. Incubating and hatching eggs can quickly increase the number of your flocks, and rearing chicks can be accomplished in much smaller spaces than those required for larger animals.

When allowed to roam, chickens are active foragers and can provide hours of entertainment. When handled from a young age, they can also be surprisingly affectionate, and they can provide people with disabilities with a connection to animals and the natural world.

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