Farming's Biggest Handicap is of the Mind
Wednesday, June 27th, 2012
Walter Joe Harper believes the biggest handicap is of the mind. The fifty-four year old Ambrose, Georgia tomato farmer who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident in 1990 left him with spinal damage and without the use of his legs said, “There are a lot of people walking that probably need more help than I do.”
Walter Joe said the best advice he got after his car accident was from a handicapped farmer who grew cabbage in Moultrie, Georgia and Hastings, Florida who told him “You pretty much got to get out there and just go at it to figure out what you can and can’t do. You’ll find out you can do a lot more than you thought you could do.” Walter Joe said,
“That’s pretty much what I do. I grew a few tomatoes last year, about two-tenths of an acre. I didn’t grow them on plastic like I did this year. I pretty much just hoed them. It’s a job to do in a wheelchair, but there isn’t any sense in complaining about it. I might as well just go out there and complain working in the field as complain about this wheelchair.”
Walter Joe pointed to a greenhouse and proudly said, “I built that greenhouse. I dug the holes with hole diggers and then put the poles down myself. I put the greenhouse together on the ground and then got a buddy to help raise it. I cut my grass and plant flowers. I’ve even laid brick walkways.”
Tomato farming is in Walter Joe’s blood. His farm has been in the family 72 years and his father, George Harper, was one of the first produce growers in the county. Walter Joe started carrying buckets in the field when he was ten years old. He planted 1.2 acres of tomatoes on plastic with drip irrigation this year and plans to plant another crop in the fall. Walter Joe grows mostly Amelia along with a few Beefsteak. He is also experimenting with tomatillos, a staple in Mexican cuisine. He started harvesting in early June and should harvest his spring crop for six weeks.
Walter Joe sprays his crop from a four wheeler with a 45 gallon tank. He uses his wheelchair to pull weeds. He notes the only chore he hasn’t been able to master yet is the art of stringing tomatoes so he hires help to tie the tomatoes. “My sister-in-law told me I could do anything I want to do but I’ll admit that there are some things I can’t do. She sort of lifts me up on that totem pole a little too high sometimes. I’ve tried to tie tomatoes but eventually I’ll figure out a way to do it in this wheelchair,” he said with a can do attitude.
Walter Joe’s advice for other handicapped growers is to get as much information from other handicapped farmers as you can. He appreciates the help and advice a produce grower in Moultrie who has the same handicap gave him.
Another source of help for handicapped farmers in Georgia is AgrAbility. It is a free service that is part of a national program administered through the United States Department of Agriculture. The program focuses on trying to keep people with disabilities on the farm and on promoting independence for farmers with disabilities.
The program in Georgia is managed by the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the Institute on Human Development and Disability in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. AgrAbility is also a partner with the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which Walter Joe credits with helping him overcome his disability, and the Arthritis Foundation Georgia Chapter.
Andy Carter, AgrAbility Service Coordinator in Tifton, said they have an engineering shop in Tifton to help offer solutions to assist disabled farmers. Some of the devices they have built include hand controls for tractors for farmers who don’t have the use of their legs or who have had knee replacements and rewiring ATVs to use a joy stick for steering to make it easier for farmers to get around their farms. Andy invites farmers to call them toll free at 1-877-524-6264 to inquire about the services they offer.
Eddie McGriff is the Coffee County Extension Coordinator for the University of Georgia Extension. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.