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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
HELPING THOSE WHO HELP OTHERS
Have you ever had one of those out-of-body experiences where you see yourself outside your own physical frame in some type of surrealistic spiritual setting watching yourself do something - significant or otherwise? I'm feeling that right now.

I've been writing this column about PR and promotions for seven and one-half years. It's been great analyzing and reporting on company or association/agency relationships and the best tactics to help market a product or idea. Well, this month, I'm the tactic. Well, more specifically, Agri Marketing magazine is the tactic.

The staff of the National AgrAbility Project, an organization with a rather complicated structure (What do you expect, it's out of Washington, D.C.?), but nonetheless wonderfully worthwhile mission, is looking for visibility. So, I'm going to tell you about them. I find this an extremely heartwarming organization with its heart in all the right places. You will too. Then, you'll find a way to help them, and Agri Marketing magazine will have fulfilled one of the goals and objectives of the AgrAbility Project. See why this is an "out-of-body" experience?

HELPING FARMERS & RANCHERS WITH DISABILITIES

Jeff Purvis, AgrAbility of Wisconsin client, (left) explains to Paul Leverenz, director of Easter Seals Wisconsin's FARM Program and AgrAbility of Wisconsin partner, how an old water heater he mounted to the Kawasaki Mule makes for easy hauling of water and milk replacer to his calf hutches.
The AgrAbility Project, simply put, is an effort to provide disabled farmers, ranchers and farm workers with "tools" to help them continue to work in the profession of their choice, despite physical, cognitive or sensory limitations that can make it difficult to do so. The funding for the project comes mostly through USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (USDA-CSREES).

This federal program, which was part of the 1990 Farm Bill and began in 1991, requires that each project be a partnership between an extension service at a land-grant university and a nonprofit disability service provider. The National AgrAbility Project is a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Extension and Easter Seals. Easter Seals, if you didn't know, is one of the largest nonprofit providers of rehabilitation services for adults and children with disabilities in the country.

In addition to the national effort, there are 24 state or regional projects. In 13, Easter Seals is the disability service provider. A number of types of disability service providers (e.g., independent living centers) are involved in the other 11 states.

Carol Maus, project director for the National AgrAbility Project in Washington, D.C., and Sarah Novak, senior marketing, communications and resource development specialist for the organization, are leading the effort to grow the program on a national level and ultimately serve more farmers and ranchers.

"We are charged with providing training for the staff of the state and regional AgrAbility projects and to provide general information and education to those with an interest," says Maus, who's been with the program since nearly the beginning in 1990. "Nearly all of our funding comes through CSREES, and we're now looking at ways to get publicity for the project so we can begin to build corporate partnerships."

That's one of the reasons Novak was at the national NAMA meeting in April in San Diego. That's where we met and I decided this was a worthwhile story to tell and, frankly, to be part of this effort to publicize the program.

"We have a marketing plan, but it's limited to media relations," Novak says. "We have no funding for advertising, so we rely on the kindness of others to help get the word out."

Hoard's Dairyman has run some PSAs in its publication, and RFD-TV recently aired the project video. Otherwise, a national brochure is used to explain the program to others, a six-minute video is used at presentations and a quarterly newsletter gets additional information to users and others interested in the program. The Web site - www.agrabilityproject.org - also provides program information.

National project funds are used strictly for training, education and informational efforts, as mentioned earlier. The state and regional AgrAbility project grants are for $150,000 per year. Grants are made for four-year periods, but states must re-apply each year to renew their grants. That money is used to pay for staff to work directly with farmers and ranchers and to provide information and training to other rural professionals who also provide goods or services to farmers and ranchers.

"The state staff works with farmers and ranchers on site, determines what limitations they have, and then helps the client develop a plan for making modifications on the operation to accommodate the disability," Maus says. "This usually involves modifications to equipment and buildings." The challenge is finding funding for the modifications.

Thus far, in the program's history, more than 10,000 site visits have been made, reaching more than 11,000 farmers, ranchers, farm workers and their family members affected by a disability. It's estimated that 20 percent of agriculture workers have disabilities that interfere with their ability to work.

One example is Jeff Purvis, who raises calves in central Wisconsin. He sustained a back injury while working in construction. The Wisconsin AgrAbility staff and Department of Vocational Rehabilitation assisted him in efforts to raise calves, despite his disability. "There aren't enough good things to say about AgrAbility of Wisconsin. If it weren't for them and the help of others, I would probably be collecting unemployment right now," Purvis says.

Another example is Vern DeRaad, a dairy farmer in southern Minnesota. He was diagnosed with leukemia in the early 1990s, then fell from a ladder and sustained a burst fracture of his L4 and L5 vertebrae. His wife, Kathryn, says, "AgrAbility staff told us about equipment we didn't know existed, like automatic hitching devices. We were so happy to learn about them." Vern adds, "Without these changes [modifications that were recommended by AgrAbility staff] we couldn't have stayed in business."

Vern has become a peer support volunteer for AgrAbility. "AgrAbility is there to help peopleÖit's a very good program and it's a deal!"

FUNDING CRITICAL

The good news is state staff members are getting on the farm or ranch working with disabled people to help them work in a career or lifestyle to which they were accustomed before some type of accident or incident changed their way of life. The bad news is there is little funding to actually make the improvements or adaptations on the farm or ranch to allow folks to do their jobs.

"Helping clients get the assistive technology (AT) they need is one of our major challenges," says Maus. "We've received some corporate funding (Pioneer, ADM and CHS were a few ag businesses mentioned), but none yet for AT; we've got to get out to ag businesses and corporations and help them to see the mutual benefits they can receive by helping us. Their customers are our customers."

Novak, who's been on the job for less than a year, knows the challenges ahead, especially with the ag economy still sputtering along. "We want to highlight this program because many of our clients [those farmers and ranchers with disabilities] don't kno´´ the resources that exist to help them. And the counselors who are the disability providers rarely know much about farming. We need to find ways to get in front of corporations to have them help us fund this program beyond the government grants we have currently."

For more information about the project, Maus and Novak encourage folks to view the Web site or call 800/914-4424. "We're trying to build a national reputation and create relationships between extension, the disability community and our clients," Maus says. "The bottom line for us is helping farmers and ranchers maintain their rural, independent lifestyle and do what they love - growing the food and fiber for the consumers across this country and the world."

There! I've succeeded in fulfilling one of the tactics of the AgrAbility Project's marketing plan. And I feel good doing it! AM

Den Gardner is owner of Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.


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