On a cold winter day, Garvin Schaffer found himself dangling upside down from the metal steps of a red tractor. And all he could think about was his knee.
“My back was on the ground, but I was hanging by my new knee,” he said. “I was scared that I messed my new knee up.”
The 49-year-old farmer was 10 days post-surgery on his second knee replacement. It was a risk to drive a tractor, but certain farm tasks needed his attention that day.
As he lay there, he knew his fall was a warning sign.
“The doctor said he doesn’t know how I didn’t mess something up. After that I called AgrAbility,” he said.
Schaffer is a recent beneficiary of the program that helps Pennsylvania farmers with injuries and disabilities so they can continue farming.
He received funding for implement assistive technologies that make his farm environment more accessible.
For most of his life, Schaffer had been plagued with knee and back pain. In 2017, his doctor diagnosed him with bilateral degenerative joint disease.
Because both his health and the dairy economy were declining, he decided to transition his farm from dairy to a beef and cash crop operation.
Schaffer spends a lot of time in his fields spring through fall, tending to 450 acres of corn, soybean and wheat. He also does custom work and makes large square bales of mixed grass hay.
Part of the transition was turning the freestall barn into a feedlot for Angus and Angus crossbred steers to be raised as natural beef for Pineland Farms. Jake Kahler, Schaffer’s neighbor, owns the cattle and rents the freestall barn from Schaffer.
Schaffer assists in feeding the steers, and loading and sorting them when they arrive from West Virginia or Kentucky pastures. He also helps load them for slaughter at Cargill in Wyalusing.
Despite his physical challenges, Schaffer, like many farmers, is driven to continue farming because of his love for the land and the preference for being his own boss.
To improve his mobility, AgrAbility and the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation provided financial aid for Schaffer to replace his golf cart with a utility terrain vehicle. Technicians with both organizations visited the farm during the spring thaw and noticed that Schaffer struggled to drive the golf cart over mud and melted snow.
“Farmers, they have to stay autonomous and independent because they either can’t hire help or their family members are not interested,” said Kendra Martin, digital media and outreach coordinator for AgrAbility. “And the state has a fine line on what they will consider for a farmer. It can’t be a want. It has to be a need.”
Schaffer is grateful for the state’s assistance.
“It’s quite handy with soil samples, feeding — throwing feed buckets on — fence repair and spraying around trees,” he said. “I was just so happy about it. I said, get it as plain Jane — no radio — but it does have air conditioning and heat because of my knees.”
'I Wish I Did it Sooner'
AgrAbility also sent an occupational therapist to Schaffer’s farm to observe his daily routine and determine his risks.
Schaffer also struggled to get in and out of his old-model front-entry skid loader. He would unhook the loader’s bucket and make a quarter turn with the skid so he could prop the loader’s side against the bucket to get in and out.
AgrAbility determined Schaffer would benefit from something more accessible, like a side-entry skid. It took Schaffer some time to adjust to the new piece of equipment, but it works much better than other cabbed skids.
“I didn’t like the regular cab doors because they were so bulky and a pain to get in and out,” Schaffer said.
The new machine also allows Schaffer to work longer than he otherwise could. The older model he was using lacked air conditioning and heat, and he would take a lot of breaks in the winter to try to keep his body warm.
“In the wintertime, going to the ag bags, that cold air would come onto my knees. It limited how long I could handle the cold,” he said.
With financial assistance from the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation, which determined that this equipment was an essential tool for Schaffer, he was able to purchase the side-entry skid.
Schaffer said he is now able to do more than he could around the farm, including scraping manure, removing rocks from fields and delivering corn silage from silage bags to the feedlot for the cattle.
AgrAbility has also helped Schaffer get equipment to modify his tractors. This includes larger, slip-resistant steps and ergonomic seats — suspension and air ride seats, which reduce the amount of jarring when driving a tractor through rough fields.
The cost of Schaffer’s project was $20,000 to $30,000.
“All was used to keep Garvin in farming and to keep him employed,” Martin said.
Assistance technology has improved Schaffer’s quality of life on the farm and reduced his risk of damaging his knee replacements.
And he hopes his story encourages other farmers who are struggling with physical challenges.
“I’m not sorry that I went ahead and got it (AgrAbility) started,” he said. “I just wish I did it sooner.”