BLUE MOUND — After he lost the use of his legs in a 1983 truck accident, R.D. Elder didn’t know how he could return to farming.
But his love of it persisted. “Agriculture is what I’ve always had an interest in,” he said. “Agriculture is my home.”
Today, he farms the land near Blue Mound with the help of modified equipment, including four tractor lifts that help him operate independently. Elder is among those who count themselves helped by Illinois AgrAbility Unlimited, which offers free help to farmers and their families who have disabilities.
The program, authorized by the 1990 U.S. Farm Bill, is funded by the Department of Agriculture and private contributions. It offers opportunities to network and find peer support, learn about equipment modification and job restructuring, and get an individualized assessment of one’s situation.
“Most of the people that we work with do want to continue to farm, and my job is to help them to do that,” said Robert “Chip” Petrea, client services manager.
Petrea lost his legs in a 1978 accident near Iuka and returned to farming afterward, so he knows the challenges — and what is possible.
“There’s not very many things now that we can’t adapt in some fashion,” he said.
Petrea said he meets individually with clients to hear their assessment of their situation and what they want to do, then helps them decide what is needed to get there.
If a farmer becomes a client of the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services, Petrea can also provide information about what equipment he or she might need to continue working. Many times, it simply means adding an equipment lift or modifying a foot or hand control, he said.
For Elder, farming with a disability means a little more planning and thought about his days in advance. Once someone hooks up the implements for him, Elder said, he’s pretty independent with a tractor.
“I deal with everything every other farmer does, but I have to think about how to adapt a piece of equipment to work for me,” he said.