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Program aids disabled farmers

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June 28, 2012 - Farm work is not as physical as it was even a couple of decades ago, but even today's most tech-savvy farmer at some point has to turn off the computer and crank up the tractor. When the farmer is unable to physically handle that part of the job, farm and farmer both suffer.

Craig Hillhouse found out about the physical and emotional costs of disability when he had a bone removed from his hip last year as part of an aggressive cancer treatment. The emotional costs went beyond simple frustration over not being able to do what he loved to do and what his father and grandfather had done before him on their land near Cold Springs in San Jacinto County. It affected his mind and spirit as well.

Hillhouse spoke candidly about his experiences during a break at a recent "Battleground to Breaking Ground" program in Seguin.

"I got sick about the time I was ready to retire and start farming full-time," he said. "I went into surgery thinking I would be able to walk after I went through physical therapy, but when I came out, the doctor told me I was probably never going to walk againThe combination of the treatments and the depression got so bad that on Christmas, I didn't even get out of bed."

His family rallied around him and found additional help with Texas AgrAbility, a USDA-financed program administered in Texas by Texas AgriLife Extension. The program provides consultation, farm and ranch assessments and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers and others associated with agriculture who have disabilities and chronic health problems.

"They were a lifesaver for me," Hillhouse said.

Cheryl Grenwelge, an assistant professor with Extension and the Texas A&M Center for Disability and Development, met with Hillhouse to determine his goals and a plan for achieving them. He told her his goal was to be on his tractor by May 1, to get a good cutting of hay. He was assigned an occupational therapist and he was put in touch with a manufacturer of lifts for tractors. The combination of exercise and rehabilitation and a new lift allowed Hillhouse to cut hay on May 1, just as he had hoped.

Hillhouse paid for the lift and the services because he had the resources to do so.

"I told them to use the money they would have spent on me to help somebody else," he said. "There's a lot more people in my situation than you would think."

Rick Peterson, project director of Texas AgrAbility, noted that the program has been in Texas for more than 20 years. It has received attention recently for its work with wounded veterans looking to return to agriculture or get into it for the first time after being deployed overseas.

"There is a need for this kind of service in a state that depends so heavily on agriculture, where the median age is 59 and there is a higher risk of disability than other populations," Peterson said. He said returning veterans often have questions about what they will be able to do and how they will be able to do it.

"They come back with a lot of questions, and there really is a lot to think about," he added. "Aside from the physical issues, there are financial considerations and other things you have to plan for before you can begin. We help answer those questions based on the individual goals, needs and abilities."

Tom Hughes, who owns and operates Last Ranch in Northeast Texas with his wife Sue, had to re-adjust to ranch life after coming back with two torn-up shoulders, one for each tour of duty with the Texas Army Reserve. Tending to rancid burn pits made him extremely susceptible to certain allergens. The Veterans Administration gave him a 70 percent disability rating, but there was still 100 percent of the work to be done.

"There were certain adaptations I had to make," Hughes told the Seguin audience. He advised the veterans in the audience to know that hard work, planning and an understanding of markets and funding opportunities with the Texas Veterans Land Board, Texas Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service and others is critical. "You have to have a plan before you start but there is planning help available," he said.

Much of Hillhouse's help these days comes from his sons, including Travis, who brings technical savvy to the table along with a desire to be involved in agriculture. The elder Hillhouse noted that neither his father nor his grandfather were full-time farmers and he jokingly described one relative as "a professional juror - he always wanted that $1.50 a day."

"My idea was to come back and work in the sun and play in the garden, but I got sick and couldn't do that," he said. "Now I can. My next goal is to walk right back into the doctor's office where I was told I wouldn't walk again and show them they were wrong."

For more information on available resources go to the Texas AgrAbility website at or on Facebook. A second 'Battleground to Breaking Ground" program is scheduled for July 14 in Mt. Pleasant.


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