When farmers need helping hand, volunteers get their hands dirty

Ready, willing and able

By Allison Floyd, Athens Banner Herald

Story featured in the Athens Banner Herald Newspaper 1/31/2009

Andy Carter and Grayson Watson
Andy Carter, AgrAbility in Georgia Service Coordinator, and stepson Grayson Watson, 10, load brush to be burned last Saturday on Jim McBride's Winterville farm. (Photo by Photos By Kelly Lambert Athens Banner Herald)

When Jim McBride bought his Winterville farm five years ago, the overgrown homestead provided him every opportunity to watch his own labor blossom into healthy, tasty food.

That first year, he dropped 8 inches in his waist from working hard and eating good. He was healthy and happy.

It was a dream come true.

Now, that dream can be a nightmare on days he wants to work - days he needs to work - but can't because of a neck injury.

Farming is physical work, and the inability to work - especially at key times - can mean disaster for a farmer.

"When a farmer gets injured, his first thought is, 'OK, how am I going to keep doing this?' " said Jessica Forbes, project coordinator for AgrAbility in Georgia, which brings volunteers and know-how to help injured or disabled farmers.

The program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, started here four years ago as a partnership between the University of Georgia's Cooperative Extension Service and the Institute on Human Development and Disability in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Organizers are applying for another four years of funding.

"Basically, the USDA saw a need with the aging farming population," Forbes said. "They don't want to sell their land; they don't want to find another job. It's their way of life. That's where AgrAbility comes in."

McBride's struggle started with a pinched nerve in his neck, a hidden problem that causes him constant pain and leaves his hands weak.

He refuses to take pain medicine that will leave him a walking zombie or submit to expensive surgery that may or may not help.

"With the help of a chiropractor, I am doing much better now. ... I have a range of motion now that I didn't have before," he said. "Still, sometimes I am carrying something and I just let it go. I'm not aware that I've dropped it."

He cut back on the rows of produce he planted last year and decided to just keep plugging away.

"I couldn't do it. I couldn't get the help and couldn't do it myself," he said.

When he heard about AgrAbility, he called a friend, Hilda Byrd, to ask about the program.

Byrd's husband, Andy, was the first AgrAbility client in Georgia. Together, they own Whippoorwill Hollow Farm in Walnut Grove, a 74-acre organic farm they work though Andy is paralyzed from the chest down.

"I said, 'I'd like to help any way I can. ... And by the way, do you think I could get some help, too?" McBride said.

So, on a recent Saturday, 50 people - UGA students, church members, master gardeners, Montessori students and fellow farmers - spread out across Jim's farm to do tasks on the "must-do" list and a few on the "if-you-get-around-to-it" list.

They pruned 247 blueberry bushes - which must be done when the plants are dormant - and planted garlic and onions. January is a little late to plant the bulbs - which should go in the ground on the shortest day of the year - but the gardeners agreed the crop would be fine.

Volunteers also did some of the maintenance work that's not pressing, but will build up over time. They fixed the greenhouse, collected and burned some debris and set up new compost bins.

Those compost bins demonstrate another part of AgrAbility's program.

A day of planting or harvesting can help a farmer at a key time, but finding ways for him to continue his work, despite a disability, will benefit him more.

Turning compost with a rake or a pitchfork would be impossible for McBride, so some volunteers brainstormed half a dozen different designs for compost containers that he can turn without pain.

AgrAbility has reached 22 states, and no matter how unique an injury or disability, someone else has dealt with the problem.

"Basically, I can send an e-mail out and say, 'I have a farmer who is a livestock farmer and had an arm amputation. How can we adapt his tools?' " explained Forbes.

"Within five minutes, I'm getting answers, with pictures of things that other farmers have tried, adaptations that didn't work, some that did. It's a really great network."




Jim McBrides Farm

Sarah Lee of the University of Georgia Engineering Department helps burn debris on the McBride farm.   (Photo by Kelly Lambert Athens Banner Herald)



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