Adaptive equipment makes Sweden farm accessible to all

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SWEDEN — For centuries, agriculture has helped to power the economy in Maine, and a farm in Sweden, with the guidance of Maine AgrAbility, is doing what it can to ensure that everyone has an equal advantage to work on or visit a farm.

Tabitha King and the King family bought Pietree Orchard, a 105-acre farm in Western Maine, in 2007 to save the land from potential development and to preserve it as a working orchard and farm. In 2012, after learning that she had a progressive muscular disorder, Tabitha and Stephen King’s daughter, Naomi King, came to work on the family farm as the resident “business monkey.” Her background in retail and hospitality made her the perfect business manager for the farm.

King worked as part of a three-person management team whose purpose was making the farm successful while focusing on Tabitha King’s vision to provide food production, food security and local development in the region. When she arrived at the farm in June, Naomi King relied heavily on a cane, but her painful condition was deteriorating fast, and soon, she needed a wheelchair to move around the farm.

“By the fall of 2012, it became obvious that we were going to have to do something,” said Naomi’s cousin and farm manager, Dan Cousins. “A lot of these diseases express uniquely because we all have a unique physicality, anyway. It’s been a fairly rapid advance, but she has actively fought the whole way to make sure she had the accessibility and the opportunity to be involved as much as she could.”

Cousins said King was adamant about making the whole farm accessible — not just for herself but for anyone who might like to visit the farm. She understood, better than most, how alienating it can be for a person with limited mobility to visit businesses, even those that claim to be accessible, only to find a ramp leading to a 6-inch step, or a bathroom with a trash can blocking the way where a wheelchair might need the space to maneuver.

“A couple of inches on a doorway can make a big difference in someone’s world,” Cousins said.

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AgrAbility came to the farm to assess what could make the buildings and land more accessible, and the folks at Pietree went right to work adding ramps and accessible bathrooms to the main buildings, lowering and widening doors, and even making sure that aisles were wider and that the product displays were set at comfortable heights for people who might be shopping in a wheelchair. They also invested in adapted equipment for harvesting and traversing the sometimes rough terrain around the farm.

Cousins said before King’s health deteriorated to a point where she was no longer visiting the farm regularly, she would go around pointing out areas where they could make changes to improve accessibility. The folks at Pietree Orchard understood that keeping their farming operation accessible to people with all types of mobility issues was more than just buying fancy equipment and installing ramps. It was more about paying attention to the little details, and that’s what makes their farm unique. Now that word has spread about Pietree’s mobility-friendly property, visitors with a wide range of physical abilities frequent the farm on a regular basis.

“People don’t think about the little, tiny details,” said Alexandra Tomaso, King’s assistant. “I think the more we tell people about these little things, the more accessible this area will become. We speak in terms of accessibility, here.”

King also invested in personal assisted devices, such as a special wheelchair that made going out into the field and even picking apples an easier thing to accomplish. The X8 wheelchair had an aggressive tire tread and could travel over all sorts of obstacles, including ruts in the field, and even did well when the ground was soft. It also had a hydraulic system for raising and lowering her seat, which came in handy to reach apples higher up in the trees.

“One of the things that happened is I lost a significant amount of weight because she’d say, ‘Let’s go for a walk.’ In that wheelchair, she could make ground speeds that my 47-year-old body didn’t like,” Cousins said. “The X8 was a fantastic bridge tool.”

“You never know what you’re going to run into out there,” said Tomaso, who herself is considered an assistive device because AgrAbility recommended that King hire an assistant, and Tomaso came to work for her as a result of that recommendation.

While King’s primary job on the farm was managing the financial aspects of the retail operation, she also maintained Pietree’s social media outreach, advertising and blog. She enjoyed going out into the orchard and fields and taking photographs to use in her marketing efforts. The X8 empowered her with the independence to continue to do those things for much longer than she might have been able to without it.

That’s what AgrAbility is all about: finding ways to keep farmers, their families, and farm workers with chronic health issues or disabilities doing what they enjoy most, with as much comfort and ease, for as long as possible.

Maine AgrAbility is a nonprofit collaboration among the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Goodwill Industries Northern New England and Alpha One. A grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture funds the program that came into existence through the 1990 Farm Bill. The first eight state programs received funding in 1991. As funding increased, more state programs were added across the US.

Maine was first funded as part of a tri-state effort with New Hampshire and Vermont in 1996. In 2010, Maine was awarded single state funding to address the needs of Maine farmers and farm workers. Lani Carlson is the Maine AgrAbility project coordinator.

“In 2014, we expanded our target audience to reflect the diversity of Maine Agriculture,” Carlson said. “Our clients are agricultural workers with disabilities, not only from land-based agriculture but also forestry and aquaculture, as well as clients who are veterans, immigrants and migrant workers.” 

A person suffering from nearly any condition that prevents him or her from working as they are accustomed to in agriculture can approach AgrAbility to take advantage of its resources. They work with people who have conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing and vision loss, arthritis and back pain, amputations, spinal cord injuries, heart problems and head injuries.

“Maine AgrAbility reaches its goals through direct service, education and networking,” Carlson said. “We provide consultative services and technical assistance, such as suggestions for modifying or adapting the agricultural operation, buildings, equipment, and/or tools. We work with rural agriculture, rehabilitation, and health care professionals to support Maine farmers with disabilities and their families.”

She added, “Finally, we share information and resources across Maine by phone and networking activities. Our mission is to assist farmers and agricultural workers living with a disability continue being active in agriculture, working safely and productively, which in turn, ensures thriving rural communities and economies.”

Pietree is always looking for ways to improve accessibility for anyone who wants to visit the farm. Recently, they installed several wheelchair compatible picnic tables so that even those who want to take advantage of their full bakery and wood-fired-oven artisan breads and pizzas onsite can easily sit with their family and friends. Pietree’s goal is to offer the full farm-stand experience to all of its guests, and to keep people of all abilities working for as long as they want and are able.

“I think it depends on your perspective, but in the broadest sense, as far as I’m concerned, anything that we can use here to help people farm reasonably, for a longer period of time, to open up the crew to others who might not be able to do the job without that is an adaptive technology,” Cousins said.

“The golf carts are a good example of something that a lot of farms don’t have, but we invested pretty heavily in the golf carts and the gators because it does give us the opportunity, the ability, to take someone who might be able to pick all day, but can’t necessarily walk the thousand feet from the break room to where the farming is going on,” he said.

In the future, Cousins said he hopes to continue expanding on the farm’s educational outreach and to add to the variety of produce they offer. Already, the farm has increased production and has the ability to grow year round thanks to the installation of several high-tunnel greenhouses, on which they installed garage doors for easy access.

“It’s the little things, like making sure all of our advertisements in the newspaper have the logo that we’re accessible,” Tomaso said. “We really make sure that logo is on everything we possibly can. We’ve done some outreach. We’ve reached out to Veterans Affairs, we’ve reached out to different organizations through AgrAbility, so that they know that we’re here and that we can take tours and bring them out and pick apples. Really, it’s been wonderful. We’re constantly growing and trying to be everything we can be.” 

“A couple of inches on a doorway can make a big difference in someone’s world,” said Dan Cousins, farm manager at Pietree Orchard. 

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