USDA-NIFA funding supports farmers with disabilities, youth safety programs

December 19, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has been awarded funding from the U.S Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture for programs to help prevent fatalities and serious injuries associated with farming and to provide assistance to individuals farming with disabilities. 

A $180,000 USDA-NIFA grant will support AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians, which is a partnership between Penn State Extension and UCP of Central Pennsylvania, a nonprofit specializing in services for people of all ages with a disability.

Penn State also will receive funding as a subcontractor under a $100,000 grant awarded to the University of Nebraska for the Safety in Agriculture for Youth (SAY) project, which is aimed at keeping the next generation of farmers safe.

AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians

AgrAbility provides direct services to farmers and farm families with a disability or long-term health condition who wish to continue in agricultural production.

"The health and safety of our nation's agricultural community is of utmost importance," said Connie Baggett, associate professor of agricultural and extension education, who also serves as principal investigator for AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians. "We are grateful for the financial support from USDA-NIFA so that we may continue to promote quality of life and independence for farmers and farm families with disabilities."

Since its inception at Penn State in 1995, the program has provided direct services to more than 750 agricultural producers in the state by conducting on-farm assessments, providing farmers with disabilities with individualized recommendations about farm accessibility, and identifying assistive technology devices and providers. Thousands more are the recipients of indirect services, such as referrals and farm safety education.

"As the age of the farming population increases, there is not a sufficient number of young people to replace those farmers when they leave the workforce, so it's even more important to provide assistance to farmers with disabilities so they can remain active," Baggett said. "I come from a farming background — my grandfather was a farmer. Unfortunately, pain caused by arthritis hindered his ability to keep farming. I wonder how much better his life would have been if there had been a program like this available to him — he truly loved farming."

Abbie Spackman is the program's case coordinator and receives referrals from numerous partners, including the state Department of Agriculture, extension offices, agribusinesses, medical professionals, nonprofit organizations, the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and veterans' groups.

Her background in growing up on a family farm in Port Matilda — and the fact that both of her grandfathers were farmers with disabilities — have given her a unique insight into what clients need. The common assistive-technology devices that she has recommended include utility vehicles, scooters, modified tractor seats and controls, and assistive equipment for milking parlors.

"The goal is to keep farmers farming and to help others who want to start farming, such as veterans, by helping them to overcome barriers," Spackman said. "It's rewarding to see how assistive technology can help our clients maintain their farms."

Among the many clients whose lives have been changed is Philip Dean, a dairy farmer from Lawrence County. A few years ago, lung, knee and foot problems threatened to end his 35-year career in the milking and cheese-production business, but then he heard about AgrAbility.

Spackman, along with an occupational therapist and farm coordinator from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, toured the family's farm, learned about Dean's physical limitations, and recommended the installation of automatic takeoffs in the milking parlor and a utility vehicle to make chores more manageable.

"AgrAbility has made a world of difference," Dean said. "Because of them, I am able to keep farming. I am thankful."

Because grant funding is designated for operational needs, AgrAbility helps clients connect with the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation, and other outside funding sources for equipment and modification needs.

Safety in Agriculture for Youth

Protecting youth working in agriculture is the central focus of the Safety in Agriculture for Youth, a NIFA-funded program that began in 2014. This multi-institution, multi-state project enhances accessibility to quality youth farm-safety curricula. Thanks to this program, more than 18,000 youth from 46 states, most under 18 years of age, have enrolled in the CareerSafe-OSHA 10-hour General Industry (Agriculture) online training — and close to 9,000 youth have completed it.

Michael Pate, Nationwide Insurance Associate Professor of Agricultural Safety and Health, and Linda Fetzer, extension associate, coordinate Penn State Extension's participation in the SAY program. This collaborative effort is led by the University of Nebraska Medical Center under the direction of Aaron Yoder, assistant professor, Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health.

"We have an aging farming population, so it's important that we support youth occupational development in agricultural safety skills and knowledge to continue leading the nation in accomplishing the tremendous task of feeding the world," said Pate, who taught in public schools in Arkansas before attending Iowa State University, where he earned a doctoral degree in agricultural education. "By fostering a culture of safety, we can help them do just that."

At Penn State, Pate and Fetzer help to create content and activities and to distribute agricultural safety and health materials to 4-H leaders and agricultural educators through the project's national clearinghouse. These resources include lessons on animal safety, blind spots and skid steers, grain safety, ladder safety, and manure pit safety.

"It's really wonderful to work with educators across the country and provide them with resources they might not have known about, or to suggest new ways to incorporate safety into what they are currently teaching," said Fetzer, whose background in agricultural safety and health spans more than 20 years.

More information on AgrAbility and Safety in Agriculture for Youth can be found on the programs' websites at and

  • Philip Dean

    Fourth generation dairy farmer Philip Dean is shown alongside automatic takeoffs, which he received with help from AgrAbility.

    IMAGE: Abbie Spackman
Last Updated December 19, 2017