Fighting to Get Back in the Combine

March 5, 2016 02:00 AM

Group helps farmers with physical challenges get back to where they belong

Shattered collarbone, broken ribs, punctured lung, damaged spinal cord and double pneumonia taking hold, R.D. Elder lay alone in a cold, heavy rain for seven hours. Crumpled in an Illinois corn field, Elder was actually as far from farmland as he’d ever been in his life.

Young and bulletproof in 1983, Elder finished late corn planting at his Blue Mountain farm on May 20 that year. He worked the following morning to catch up on equipment maintenance in preparation for soybeans and then spent the evening with friends in town. Going home at midnight, Elder hit a bump in hard rain and his truck slid across the highway. The initial flip slammed Elder into the dash, breaking his back and leaving the 19-year-old farmer paralyzed from the waist down.

Thanks to a special group marking its 25th anniversary this year, Elder ultimately returned to farming. Literally and figuratively, AgrAbility has helped scores of injured farmers such as Elder climb back into the cab.

During his three-month hospital stay, Elder decided to channel his frustration toward getting back to the farm. Short-term and long-term goals all pointed to the dark dirt of his tabletop ground in northeastern Christian County, Ill. “Agriculture was my home and I was going home. I never let it out of my mind,” Elder recalls.

He heard about tractor adaptations for physically challenged farmers from fellow Christian County producer Don Skinner, who had been paralyzed after falling off a grain bin. Elder and a brother used Skinner’s ideas to build hand controls and a tractor lift. “My visit to Don predated AgrAbility, but the concept was the same: Share information and go forth,” Elder says. 

Elder’s lift was cobbled together with iron, welding, winches and cables. Functional, but not safe. Several years later, AgrAbility and the Illinois Department of Human Services helped Elder secure a Life Essentials lift, pivotal in allowing him greater mobility on his farm. “Farmers want a hand-up, not a handout. AgrAbility gives you technology resources and provides valuable information. They’re here to help and always ready to get you started,” he says.

Elder, 52, still lives at the only address he’s ever known, on family ground purchased in the early 1960s. He moves across his operation on a utility vehicle, growing alfalfa, corn, oats and soybeans. Elder must plan every physical step a day in advance to match his abilities with a given farm task. “Farming is my accomplishment and I refused to let go. It gives me a true sense of self-worth,” he adds.

Farming was the engine driving Elder to recovery and fulfillment, and he’s quick to encourage others. “If someone gets injured, there’s no reason to give up on ag. Grab as much technology as you can and get into 
AgrAbility’s network to get peer support,” he says.

AgrAbility was first authorized by the 1990 farm bill but must be appropriated each year in the federal budget. Through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, AgrAbility awards USDA grants to universities across the U.S., which are required to partner with a non-profit disability service organization. Essentially, the 20 AgrAbility projects nationwide are a mix of agriculture expertise through a land-grant university and disability expertise through a non-profit. 

AgrAbility’s focus falls into four main areas: education through workshops, conferences and websites; networking to leverage resources with other organizations; direct service to agriculture workers through visits and assessments; and marketing to increase awareness of the program.

“There is a tremendous variety of level of need for injured agriculture workers,” says Paul Jones, manager of the National AgrAbility Project. The AgrAbility team provides numerous services, from identifying sources for financial help to recommending technology. Its website,, includes a database called The Toolbox that contains 1,500 agriculture-related technology products. 

“Farmers are independent and often won’t ask for help, but other family members, spouses, children and parents, come to us for help. We want to convey hope and let them know there is technology to help them continue farming,” Jones adds.

Ed Bell grows strawberries and asparagus on the slightly rolling Indiana farmland his parents bought in 1969. He began farming out of high school and completed the Purdue agriculture short course in the early 1980s. In 1982, during a visit to Indianapolis, Bell was violently attacked at an apartment complex. He was shot and paralyzed from the armpits down. 

   Despite paralysis since 1982, Ed Bell    continues to work on his strawberry
farm in Hagerstown, Ind., with the
help of his specially adapted

Just 21 years old, Bell was hospitalized for three months and then entered a grinding rehab facility. After going back home to his Hagerstown farm, the mental game began. “I had to make choices,” Bell remembers. “My family backed me, and I couldn’t have made it alone. My faith in God held strong because He knew the ending. Mentally, it was a battle for several years.”

Bell rigged hand controls on a tractor and never looked back. Over time, he tailored the farm to matching technology. “I run into injury-related physical problems and other problems like everyone else. When those circumstances arise, my wife and I always say, ‘At least nobody is trying to kill us.’

“AgrAbility helps exchange ideas, gizmos and gadgets, and connects people so they can manage their farms,” Bell adds. “We’re supposed to share burdens and that’s what AgrAbility is all about.” 


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