Michigan AgrAbility 2023 Updates

Michigan’s AgrAbility program works with people in the agricultural industry who have an illness, injury or disability to help them keep working on the farm.

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The Michigan AgrAbility team in the backup camera monitor on display at Great Lakes Expo in Grand Rapids in December 2023.

Michigan AgrAbility provides assistance to people in the agricultural industry with an injury, illness or physical disability to enable them to continue working at no cost to the individual. USDA-NIFA funds AgrAbility and works at both the national and state levels through land grant universities in partnership with state disability organizations. Currently, about 22 states hold AgrAbility grants. In Michigan, Michigan State University Extension and Easterseals MORC collaborate to deliver the program and often work closely with Michigan Rehabilitation Services as well. Primary objectives include direct technical assistance for farmers, education about occupational health, improving processes to make tasks easier on the body, networking among stakeholders to improve relationships and create connections, and marketing to increase awareness among target audiences. Michigan AgrAbility has committed to working with 150 clients per year through 60+ farm evaluations. In 2023, staff met with 215 clients across the state.

Another key component of the program is evaluation, which ensures that this work holds value and is important to continue. Of those who responded to the year-end evaluation survey (38% of clients or 45 individuals for the reporting period), 84% said that the modifications or assistive technology (AT) provided was “excellent.” Seventy-one percent of clients saw an improvement in their ability to work after being served by AgrAbility. Communication received high remarks, with 95% of respondents saying that communication between AgrAbility staff and clients was excellent, followed closely by the 91% who said that the information provided about AT and its use was also excellent. Overall satisfaction for the program was 98%.

Michigan AgrAbility works with MSU’s Mechanical Engineering capstone course to develop and create assistive technology for clients. In Spring 2022, five students worked with AgrAbility partner Heroes to Hives to develop a self-propelled beehive lifting mechanism. The lifter was designed to carry 300 pounds over uneven terrain, which alleviates strain in lifting for a beekeeper with a back or leg injury and would allow them to transport the hives without issue. In Fall of 2022, they designed an adjustable modular tractor step system to reduce the height that a farmer with arthritis, leg injuries or other mobility limitations would need to step to get into the tractor. Most recently in Spring of 2023, the capstone course created a tractor manlift to reduce the chance of falling and make it easier to access an important piece of equipment. The design was lighter weight and more structurally sound than a previous design, allowing farmers to continue working and reducing instances of injury. In Spring 2024, Michigan AgrAbility and the capstone course are slated to collaborate with Heroes for Hives to create a swarm trap lifter.

Direct letters from MSU’s Occupational and Environmental Medicine (OEM) division are an important way that potential clients hear about AgrAbility. Since 2015, Michigan hospitals have been required to report work-related injuries. OEM compiles and creates reports on these injuries and those who have been involved in an agricultural related incident receive information via mail about AgrAbility and the services the project provides. From January 2022 to July 2023, OEM reviewed 498 medical records and created investigations and reports accordingly. Of these workplace injuries, 345 took place on farms, and OEM sent 40 letters to individuals who may benefit from working with AgrAbility. The previous year, they sent 25 letters. The purpose of this connection between injury reporting and outreach is to address the disconnect between workers and their families impacted by disability or injury, and to help them navigate and benefit from advances in the field of rehabilitation and improvements of assistive technology that make work more accessible.

Another way of meeting new clients and educating the public about AgrAbility is through exhibiting and presenting at events throughout the state. In 2023, Michigan AgrAbility staff and volunteers conducted 10 presentations and held booths at 18 agricultural and health-related events, distributing nearly 1000 brochures. These included the U.P. State Fair, various Farm Bureau annual meetings across the state, the Great Lakes Fruit and Vegetable Grower’s Expo, the Beef Preview show, Michigan Beekeepers Association Conference, Heroes to Hives, a Michigan Works job fair, the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference, Michigan Pork Symposium, and more. More than 15,000 people attended these events.

While AgrAbility provides technical assistance and education about assistive technology as well as modifications to help improve efficiency and reduce injury, federal funds are not allowed to be used to purchase equipment. This is where Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS) comes in. Easterseals MORC staff referrals to MRS led to $255,000 in funding in 2022 and $392,056 in 2023. This is a significant investment from the state to help farmers keep farming and improve their quality of life. Easterseals MORC also accepts donations for other assistive technology devices and outreach work, but MRS takes on the larger funding requests as long as the AT helps farmers continue working.

An important partner and collaborator is the Alpha Gamma Rho (AGR) fraternity at MSU. In 2022, AGR surpassed $102,000 in donations to AgrAbility. Their annual Beef Preview Show at MSU’s Livestock Pavilion is the largest single philanthropy event in MSU Greek life, with well over 500 head of cattle, 450 exhibitors and nearly 60 sponsors each year. These accomplishments were covered by Michigan Farm News in May 2022 and with 48,000 active members who receive these updates, this article was great publicity for both AGR and the AgrAbility program.

AgrAbility and ESM also receive generous corporate and private sponsorships, totaling more than $30,000 in support of AT and other modifications for clients across the state. Corporate sponsorships from Greenstone, EOTECH, State Farm and The Andersons also support the work of AgrAbility.

Finally, MSU took a big step this year by hiring a full-time MSU Extension Educator to work with AgrAbility. This will create more capacity for the program, additional marketing materials and opportunities, and more.

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