All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for October 2003

Rural Solutions keeps disabled farmers on the farm

September 29, 2003
Heather Lilienthal
Iowa Farm Bureau

The August heat wasn’t the only source of warmth during the organized press event at Max and Jolene Rodemeyer’s farm—the conversations were just as warm as a number of people gathered to talk about their involvement with Max and their dedication to keeping him on his farm.

Max has dealt with multiple sclerosis (MS) for more than 20 years. MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. It can cause a number of problems including double vision, muscle weakness, numbness and fatigue.

Six years ago, he, Jolene and their sons, Jade and Joel, knew they needed some help. They turned to the AgrAbility Program.

Finding rural solutions

The Iowa AgrAbility Program led the Rodemeyers to a network of professionals who have since become friends. Tracy Keninger, senior director of program services at Easter Seals of Iowa, was one of the Rodemeyers’ first contacts and chatted with Max at the August gathering.

Easter Seals offers a program called Rural Solutions, formerly known as FaRM, to help Iowa farmers keep doing what they live to do—farm.

The Iowa program served as a pilot for the National AgrAbility Project. The Farm Bureau Federation’s state women’s committee has been a longtime financial supporter of the program.

According to AgrAbility, tens of thousands of rural citizens in America become disabled as a result of non-farm injuries, illnesses, other health conditions and the aging process. Approximately 20 percent of farmers, ranchers and ag workers have disabilities that interfere with their work.

The National AgrAbility Project identifies rural isolation, a tradition of self-reliance and gaps in rural service delivery systems as reasons preventing ag workers from using farm operation modifications, equipment adaptations and assistive technologies to safely accommodate a disability.

“We (Rural Solutions) focus on what a person with a disability can do and provide labor-saving ideas or devices,” explains Keninger. “We want to help them keep doing what they love—farming,” says Keninger.

Asking for help

The Rodemeyers were ready for Keninger’s help, but not all rural families, especially farmers, are ready to admit that they need outside assistance.

“Max coped with the MS for years before contacting us,” said Keninger. “We even receive calls from concerned neighbors, friends and spouses.”

She remembers her first visit to Max’s farm. She listened to the Rodemeyers’ concerns and identified areas that would help Max.

She suggested replacing the grain bin ladders with winding steps. She also recommended an easier way to hitch and unhitch wagons and suggested a motorized vehicle to transport Max between fields and buildings.

“The Iowa farmer is highly motivated,” says Chuck Larson with the Rural Solutions staff. “With a serious disability, a life can easily crumble. You worry about the bankers finding out, how the family will manage and how the community will react.”

The program serves 150 families, with approximately 50 new clients each year. For each client, Keninger, Larson and Tony Wernimont from Rural Solutions offer options such as checking insurance, home healthcare aides, lifting devices to help sit in a chair or at the toilet. They also follow up with clients as often as needed.

“We sit at kitchen tables and discuss the details and the challenges. It often becomes very personal,” said Keninger. And then she smiled, her eyes shining behind her black-rimmed glasses. “I’ve been invited to the weddings of my clients’ children.”

Keninger has looked into the eyes of farm family members who wonder how the farm will continue. She’s also seen the look in the eyes of her own relatives.

Personal experiences

Keninger’s father, a farmer, injured his back in a farming accident.

“He always explained it as a fight with a boar and he didn’t win,” says Tracy. The injury limited her father’s farming abilities, and the family worked to pick up where he had to stop.

Larson and Wernimont have also had their own farm injury stories. Larson has lost fingers and Tony lost his right arm below the elbow when he was 18. Larson worked with Wernimont and his family after the accident. Now the two work together.

Max is able to continue working on the farm, with the help of assistive devices and his family’s increased help. But during his first kitchen-table session with Keninger, he wasn’t optimistic about a future in farming.

“Max initially thought he would need to give up farming,” says Keninger. “The purpose of our meeting was to help him get out, but I offered my ideas. He’s proof that it is possible. It just takes creative thinking and the will to give it a try.”

To contact Rural Solutions, call Keninger at 515-289-1933. You can also visit

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