Program helps veteran succeed at life on farm

JACKSON --- Michael Bishop mounts the long wooden ramp he built next to the carport on his 61-acre farm and hops onto the wheel well of his tractor. It isn't being paralyzed from the chest down or the 100-degree heat that stops him from heading out into the field, however.


"See if I remembered my keys," he said, digging into the pockets of his jeans. "Uh-oh."

A quick cell phone call to his wife, Rhonda, and minutes later she is bouncing up the dirt road past the cattle and horses to deliver the red key.

It is about the only help Mr. Bishop will need. He is among an estimated 288,000 people who work in agriculture despite disabilities, according to AgrAbility, a state-federal program designed to help them.

Most were already farming when they were injured and are looking for a way to continue, said Cheryl Skjolaas, the national program manager. But in Mr. Bishop's case, the dream of running his own farm in Jackson came after he was injured in a car accident in December 1997 at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was stationed with the Army.

"I wanted to do it bad enough," said Mr. Bishop, 30. "And I found a way."

It meant going to school at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Ga., to get a degree in animal science. As part of that, he had to prove he could drive a tractor, but the school had no adaptive equipment. So Mr. Bishop took a 3-foot length of pipe and used a hose clamp to latch it onto the clutch to create his hand control. He uses a similar device on his current tractor and on a riding mower.

It is like that with a lot of farmers, said AgrAbility project coordinator Jessica Forbes.

"A lot of times when we go out, I learn more from the farmers," she said, "because they are very creative and very resourceful and have a lot of determination to keep going, so they're going to figure out a way."

In the three years since the Georgia program began, it has done assessments for 25 farmers, including Mr. Bishop when he was a Georgia resident. In his case, the program got a step welded onto the wheel well of his tractor so he can swing his legs onto it as he moves from the wheelchair to the tractor seat.

Finding funds for adaptive equipment -- and convincing others why it is needed -- is often an issue, Ms. Skjolaas said.

"Some of it is getting people who are working with the client, either on the medical side or the vocational rehab side, to understand agriculture and some of the equipment and some of the job tasks that individual is looking at doing," she said. "Or even understanding why something could be a good piece of assistive technology for somebody on that work site."

All-terrain vehicles, such as Mr. Bishop's Polaris Ranger, are often a good solution for these farmers, Ms. Skjolaas said.

"There's a lot of opportunities, and sometimes it is just finding the right tools, the right assistive technology," she said. "They've got the desire."

It is a passion that started with Mr. Bishop when he was 7 and got his first horse. Nearly everyone else in the family is a plumber, but that wasn't for him.

"I like being out in the open," he said.

When the military was no longer an option, he put himself through college to get into cattle ranching. The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Centers kicked in with a rugged-looking wheelchair with knobby tires that he also uses to get around on the farm, sometimes to the consternation of his wife.

"Only when he gets stuck in the mud in the middle of a field," Mrs. Bishop said, teasing him.

"It's been like three (times)," he said.

"I'm the worrier," she confessed. "But he loves it."

They met in the Spinal Cord Injury Unit at the Augusta VA, where she is an occupational therapist. They got married three years ago and adopted three teenagers, 13, 14, and 15.

"It's challenging, rewarding, overwhelming," Mr. Bishop said.

Asked which is harder to wrangle, he said, "They all have a mind of their own, but the cows are easier to handle."

Actually, "the kids are very helpful out here," he said.

Though he also makes custom furniture, his real passion is for the land. Right after a devastating injury, he said, you realize there is an option to just do nothing.

"I didn't want to sit around," he said.

So he bought the farm, where his joy is in seeing a cow he raised with a bottle give birth to a calf and seeing his fields bear hay that will feed them.

"There's nothing more satisfying than being paralyzed from the chest down and planting 30 or 40 acres of grass, and then harvesting it with minimal help," he said. "That's what keeps me motivated."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or


AgrAbility was designed to help people with disabilities who work in agriculture. The program works with Cooperative Extension Services at land-grant universities such as the University of Georgia and nonprofit agencies that help those with disabilities.

IN GEORGIA: AgrAbility holds educational seminars and has worked with more than 250 people to help them find ways to keep farming. For more information on Georgia's program, call (877) 524-6264 or go to

IN SOUTH CAROLINA: The state doesn't have an AgrAbility program. Residents in states without a program can contact the national agency at (866) 259-6280.