Farming with Disabilities

Creative farming adaptations allow people of all abilities to work the land.

article image
courtesy of Jennifer A. Sheffield
Jennifer Sisney feeds chickens, hogs, and goats at Landon Farm.

Print This article includes an audio version.  Scroll down just a bit and click on the Audio Article to listen. 

It’s the middle of summer. Still, the barn in which the sheep spend winter needs to be raked out. Three piglets used the space before they were put into the hayfield. Nothing much is different about this raking chore, except that Paul, 51, is doing it using one arm and only enough vision to see through a pinhole.

Paul has cerebral palsy, and he uses a walker. He lives in a life-sharing community called Innisfree Village on 550 acres in Crozet, Virginia, and he can only ride in a rough-terrain vehicle (RTV) to weekly worksites after putting on elbow pads and a full-face helmet. The cows know his voice, though, and after checking 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 up for compost.”

For those living with disabilities, homesteading can seem like another system designed to exclude. However, whether they’re growing produce, making clothing, or raising livestock, Paul and others are proving it can be done, and with benefits. At Innisfree, those with disabilities are designated coworkers. Each helps produce a product at a specific workstation — namely, a weavery, a wood shop, an herb and vegetable garden, and a bakery — in addition to pounding fence posts and collecting eggs.

man in red shirt sifting compost in a greenhouse

“We don’t allow productivity to negatively impact the experience that people have,” says Executive Director Rorie Hutter. “We want things to have value because they are useful or enjoyable, and so we do them in a non-automated way to preserve that. Workstations are not routes by themselves for independence; rather, each step represents skill-building.”

Audio Article

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

woman washing vegetable greens

When Bramley was 15, he was in a car accident that amputated several of his fingers and nearly severed his left arm. Bramley says, “There is an innate desire in people to raise plants or animals, and disabled people have the same needs and interests. … You might lay out a farm for someone with mobility issues with paths, ramps, and gates they can open, or raised beds they can reach from a chair,” he says. But, he emphasizes, for those who are just starting out, “Don’t wait. Get what you can afford, and challenge the perceived norms when you see fit.”

Back to those 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 hens, goats, and cows. John has been blind from birth, and every day, he accepts obstacles rather than going around them, whether he’s climbing onto a roof or clearing steep mountain trails. “Just get you a dream — then, figure out ways to do stuff as you go at it,” he says.

man raking hay in a barn

The Dignity of Risk

Innisfree Village was dreamed up in 1971 by a group of parents to serve as an alternative to longevity care for their children as differently-abled adults.

The original 400 acres included Walnut Level Farm and several outbuildings. Today, it incorporates more than 400 free-ranging chickens, approximately 40 sheep, 70 grass-fed Black Angus and Red Devon breeding cows, and nonbreeding cows that give birth to 10 to 20 calves per year. Cows and turkeys are slaughtered for village consumption or sold live. The idea is to use therapeutic strategies to power a low-input, regenerative agricultural system.

Freedom of movement is paramount for not only the animals but also the residents and is a piece of integrating the “dignity of risk” concept, meaning that those who live with disabilities should be able to make choices and experience the consequences, even if those consequences are difficult, and that this risk is part of engagement with the land or with traditional crafts.

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

One compromise that’s used at Innisfree is an egg-washing machine. This is so two people, with one working arm between them, can prepare the 120 dozen sold to local markets. In the fields, what’s important is that co-workers do all parts of a task.

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

Ultimately, Welsh feels that trusting your body in your working environment has the greatest positive impact. “I think a raised bed is a great idea, but it would be a huge undertaking just to build it,” she says. Pointing out Marny, 66, who has been at Innisfree since 1976, working in a thicket of tomato plants, she says, “You can feel ripeness and learn the lay of the land.”

man and woman making hand pies in a kitchen

Starting Small and Evolving

Back at Landon Farm, on 50 acres of mixed woods, pasture-based methods of rotating herds of meat and dairy goats and cattle keep John busy, despite his visual capacity of 8 percent. John and Jennifer raise Freedom Ranger chickens and Ossabaw Island hogs in addition to tending their Blue Ridge property’s blueberry bushes, fruit trees, campsites, and garden.

In school, John had to discover for himself how to work smarter, since teachers “were still trying to figure out what to do with a kid like me,” he says. “I had to get up close 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, exact, because he has to feel out measurements. “Whether it’s a tape measure or something else, you have to get to whatever you are looking at,” he says. “When people cut a board, they mark it. But I don’t have to mark it every time.”

Taking trees down to mill for use around the property is a big job, but overall, Landon Farm’s homesteading aspects are done on a small scale. As their priorities evolved, so did their focus on the broad relationship between agriculture and the surrounding environment.

“We use biodynamic methods, such as multispecies grazing, to reduce the stress on the animals,” Jennifer says.

For this couple, homesteading is not about earning a lot of money, and there’s no final design. “Our goal is to provide our community with better choices, do a little bit of everything, and have enough for our family,” she says.

man sanding a round piece of wood

Old Tools, New Tricks

In the world of extendable trowels and rakes, adaptive cultivators, and even more DIY approaches to reduce strain on your hands, 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 I look after them well. Some tools I may only use once per year, but if it’s in the toolbox, it means that I can fix it.”

Bramley also had to teach himself to farm again after his accident, so his dad came up with simple tasks. “Basically anything that involved operating machinery, like tractors and front-end loaders; then, I progressed onto driving the truck as my injured left hand became more useful.”

Bramley was told he wouldn’t be able to pass Australia’s chainsaw use accreditation. “The instructor said, ‘No way can you hold a saw,’ with a hand like mine, but I’d used one on the farm,” he says. Bramley says it’s important to find your allies and become an advocate. “What happened to me was tough to accept at 15 years old, but I utilize now what the movement offers.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act celebrated 30 years in 2020, and though numerous apps and programs, such as the National AgrAbility Project, now exist, many solutions and printed materials preceded those modern resources.

“You can see miracles with technology, but there are many different ways to solve the issues someone has, 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 Experiment

Without strict standards or road maps to success that cover all locations and limitations, how can someone get started?

Bramley’s opinion: “Caring for animals requires knowledge and experience, but poultry and vegetables complement each other and are ideal for learning. As you become confident, you can add more enterprises. The more enterprises that you can layer, the better.”

“There is not a clear-cut set of tools that will magically make it better, because so much of what we do is team-based,” Wool says. “Co-workers love taking care of animals. That is the foundation of the farm workstation. Setting up anything is based on what your goals are.”

Bramley says the benefit of regenerative farming is that it can be adapted for everyone. “It’s not like organic farming, where you must adhere to certain particular covenants. Practitioners focus on what they can change to benefit the ecosystem in which they operate.”

As colder weather approaches at Innisfree, Paul switches from raking hay to fetching firewood with his wheelbarrow. Hopping over the gate of a lambing pen to join Paul, who’s waiting in the RTV, Wool says, ultimately, “There is no limit to belief.”

Keep Chickens for Laid-Back Egg-Layers

For people with disabilities, chickens can be one of the best livestock options. The birds themselves are lightweight, portable, and require minimal housing and equipment. Incubating and hatching eggs can increase your flock numbers rapidly, and raising 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 who have disabilities with a connection to animals and the natural world.