Back in 2007, Kevin Yasnowski became the first farmer to receive a financial loan through the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF). At the time, Mr. Yasnowski was working at a Nike shoe outlet, but he didn’t want to just sell shoes. He wanted to help with haying and raising heifers alongside his father on their family’s farm. To do so Yasnowski, who has Down Syndrome, needed safety equipment for a tractor. But because he was already employed, the Penn. Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) turned down his request for assistance. Indeed there was no program that could help with this equipment. That’s when PATF stepped in.
important to do what you love,” notes Executive Director Susan Tachau.
PATF learned of Yasnowski through a partnership it had just launched with AgrAbility and Penn State University. AgrAbility’s mission is to help farmers keep producing; the Pennsylvania AgrAbility program provides outreach to farmers with disabilities, assessments for equipment needs, and information and referral for funding. PATF, in turn, provides alternative financing, case management, and advocacy.
In Mr. Yasnowski’s case, PATF helped finance a seat belt to keep him in the operator’s chair and the roll over protective structure (ROPS) for protection should the tractor flip over. “What’s important about this story,” Tachau emphasizes, “is that no other program could help him. But he paid off his loan in about a year.”
PATF has made ten loans to farmers through its AgrAbility program, and learned
some lessons about working with farmers and state agencies along the way. Recently
ATPN spoke with Tachau about her experience with AgrAbility and gleaned the
following lessons, surprises, and strategies to share with the AT program
- Loans to farmers are not particularly risky.
PATF’s farmers have had a much higher debt to income ratio than its other loan recipients, yet so far none have defaulted or even gone delinquent. “A farmer’s debt to income looks higher because their assets are in the farm,” Tachau explains. “But farmers are committed to their family farms. It’s more than a job. We don’t put liens on cows to make these loans, and the farmers are paying them off.”
- Farmers want all resources to go to the farm.
“Because farming is much more than a vocation, farmers put everything on the farm. So when AgrAbility’s OT comes back to them recommending, among other things, an ergonomic chair for the office, it’s a hard sell. Steps up to the tractor? Yes. Help converting to another product that is physically easier to make? Absolutely. The chair? Not so interested.”
- Vocational Rehabilitation can’t cover everything.
At the time Yasnowski’s loan was made, PATF assumed financing farm equipment would prove to be unusual. AgrAbility would get the farm equipment from Vocational Rehabilitation, and PATF would finance the farmer’s non-vocational needs (i.e. home and vehicle modifications, hearing aids, and perhaps an ergonomic chair). Now, looking back, of the ten AgrAbility loans they’ve helped finance, every one has gone to purchase farm equipment.
- It works best to complete a package for the farmer.
“Because there is a limit to what OVR can cover, we find that we’re completing packages for farmers. OVR will fund much of the adaptive equipment and we’ll try and finance the rest, including the vehicles.” In 2009, PATF worked with OVR to help a farmer with cervical and lumbar pain obtain new farm equipment that would simply be easier on his body. The needs were significant: an Ag-bag machine, a feeder wagon, a utility vehicle, an elevator lift system, upgrades to his tractor (new suspension seating, adapted shifting mechanism to engage the transmission and other gears), and a new truck that provides a smoother (and less painful) ride. OVR paid for the new farm equipment as well as $1,200 for the adaptations to the tractor. PATF guaranteed a loan for $19,300 (at 4.5%) so the farmer could pay the difference between the old tractor and the new one ($4,800) and the truck ($14,500). Monthly loan payments: $306.37. Repayment period: 6 years.
- Get creative when considering income.
PATF has learned that if anyone in the farm family is working off the farm, PATF may not have to guarantee the loan, which makes available a lot more money to work with to help a farmer.
- Help OVR to “think outside the box” when it comes to AT.
As the example above illustrates, AT for farmers is not always adaptive equipment; sometimes it is just new or different farm equipment. “Of course we advocate for the farmers to OVR,” emphasizes Tachau, “and partner to help make it happen.”
- Get to the policy table with multiple agencies.
An AT program can provide far reaching impact for people with disabilities by creating relationships with other state agencies, making sure AT is included in service definitions, and preventing program asset limits that threaten to exclude farm families and others from needed services. PATF is at the table with Medicaid as they craft their home and community based waiver (HSBS) service definitions and asset rules. It is also helping create the Pennsylvania State Plan for Independent Living (SPIL). “Ultimately we are looking to create opportunities,” Tachau says, “to complete more packages for people with disabilities so they can get and afford the AT they need. Not just with OVR.”
- Get to the kitchen table with farmers.
Outreach to farmers with disabilities is effective when the AgrAbility staff members are farmers themselves (or have a strong farming background). “It’s fascinating to me what we have learned, culturally,” Tachau muses. “Our AgrAbility people are farmers. They talk the language. When they visit a farm they know what is a priority and what is not a priority. I don’t step foot on a farm. I could, but they would know I don’t come from a farming background and that does make a difference.”
Learn more about creating an AgrAbility partnership; download this National Assistive Technology Technical Assistance Partnership (NATTAP) publication (rtf).