AgrAbility and HARVEST: Innovating to Promote Wellness and Viability for Virginia Agriculture
The agriculture industry dominates Virginia’s economy, contributing more than $70 billion annually and providing over 334,000 jobs in the state (VDACS, 2017). Similar to the trends the rest of the United States is experiencing, however, the average age of Virginia’s farmers continues to creep upward, reaching an average of 59.5 years in 2019, with a third of farmers in Virginia being 65 years or older (USDA, 2019a). The aging farm population is coupled with a rise in farm-related stress and depression. An increase in stress and depression among farmers can be attributed to an array of interrelated social and economic issues affecting farm families in Virginia and across the country (Jones, Reed, & Hunt, 2017; Kyle, et al., 2016a). New farmers, including military veterans who enter the Virginia farming population in significant numbers (USDA, 2019b), are also impacted by these health and safety concerns. In Virginia, the AgrAbility program works to provide services that protect Virginia’s aging farmers, farmers with disabilities, and their families, while also supporting vulnerable new farmer groups.
AgrAbility is a federally funded program that operates as a partnership between cooperative extension and nonprofit organizations. In Virginia, AgrAbility is operated by Virginia Tech in partnership with Virginia State University’s Small Farm Outreach Program and the nonprofit organization, Easterseals UCP North Carolina & Virginia. The program aims to equip farmers with disabilities, injuries, or illness with skills, resources, and innovative adaptations that promote farmer wellness and allow farmers to maintain fulfilling agricultural livelihoods. To do this, AgrAbility provides education, direct services, networking, and marketing services to farmers and their families. These programs focus on farm safety, preventing work-related injuries, and providing affordable assistive technologies for farmers with disabilities as well as mental health education and intervention services for farmers and their families.
Innovative adaptation is an essential aspect of AgrAbility’s programming. Through a collaboration with HARVEST, Virginia’s AgrAbility program has taken the opportunity to be a leader in promoting research on the use of exoskeletons as an assistive technology for farmers. This partnership is supported through a National Science Foundation grant: “Affordable Flexible Robotic Technology to Enhance Work Performance of Farmers with Mobility Restrictions,” led by Dr. Alex Leonessa (Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech), Dr. Divya Srinivasan (Assistant Professor, Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech), and Dr. Kim Niewolny (Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech), with support from their colleagues and graduate students. Through the partnership, AgrAbility and HARVEST engage in innovative research to meet farmers’ needs, promote wellness and farm viability, and support Virginia’s largest industry. To learn more, visit Virginia Tech Engineer’s 2018 article featuring this partnership work: https://eng.vt.edu/magazine/stories/fall-2018/farming-of-the-future.html.
Jones, M. S., Reed, D. B. & Hunt, M. L. (2017). Unrecognized epidemic kills farmers. Kentucky Nurse, 65 (4), 8-9.
Kyle, C., Niewolny, K., Orndoff, N., Ohanehi, D., Ballin, K., Young, J., Bridge, S., Robertson, T., (2016). Mental health topics for farm families and caregivers: An AgrAbility Virginia Program resource. AEE-151NP, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech.
USDA (2019a). 2018 State Agricultural Overview: Virginia. Richmond, VA: USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Available at: https://www.nass.usda.gov/Quick_Stats/Ag_Overview/stateOverview.php?state=VIRGINIA
USDA (2019b). Producers with Military Service - Selected Farm Characteristics: 2017. Washington, D.C.: USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Available at: https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/AgCensus/2017/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_1_State_Level/Virginia/st51_1_0065_0065.pdf
VDACS (2017). The Economic Impact of Virginia's Agriculture and Forest Industries, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia. Available at: http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/pdf/weldoncooper2017.pdf