Pam Martin’s organic vegetable farm is her livelihood. But a respiratory disease and diabetes make it difficult for the Macon County farmer to work for longer than 15 minutes at a time.
One of her biggest struggles? Dragging a hose 50 to 100 yards from her house to water the garden and nourish her chickens and horses.
Enter the North Carolina AgrAbility Partnership.
Together with N.C. State seniors from the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE), N.C. AgrAbility is helping Pam and other North Carolina farmers with disabilities through a variety of methods that make their lives easier and more independent.
“Our mission is to keep farmers farming, regardless of their limitations,” says Michele Proctor, N.C. AgrAbility project coordinator. “We work hard to find solutions, minimize obstacles and keep them working toward their occupational goals.”
Part of the federally funded AgrAbility program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food Safety and a project of the N.C. Agromedicine Institute, N.C. AgrAbility is a collaborative partnership among N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University, disAbility Resource Center, East Carolina University and N.C. State University.
Through direct services, education and outreach, the partnership serves individuals who are limited by any type of physical, mental or health-related disability.
Starting in the fall of 2012, N.C. AgrAbility teamed with the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering on two very special senior design projects: a solar-powered hydraulic delivery system for Martin and an all-terrain motorized wheelchair.
Seniors Anna Lo, John Mace, Paul McKenna, Chris Tartaglia and Natasha Tinsley worked all year to develop a watering system that meets Martin’s needs while maintaining her commitment to responsible environmental practices. Using a pump and solar panel donated by the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department, the students sourced all of the other parts they needed to build the system from scratch.
And on a sunny day in late April, they traveled to Macon County to install their senior design project on Martin’s farm.
“It was sort of a hallelujah moment when Pam turned the water on and it gushed out,” Proctor says. “Everybody stopped what they were doing and stared. About an hour after we left, Pam called and said, ‘I can’t stop turning the water on!’”
At the heart of the students’ design is a solar panel that powers a small pump to draw water from a creek bordering the property and feed it into a 220-gallon cistern that rests atop a tall steel and wood frame.
The system draws about two gallons of water per hour, so it’s very slow and won’t drain the creek dry, Proctor says. The solar panel charges two small batteries, allowing the pump to run after dark and continue to fill into the night. A float valve disengages the pump when the tank nears full. While the system provides consistent water flow, it also comes equipped with a manual cut-off for Pam to use if necessary.
“The students did a wonderful job providing a watering solution that not only meets the farm’s watering requirement, which is about 80 gallons per day, but also has almost no environmental impact, which was important to Pam,” Proctor said.
Also key to the finished product were minimal maintenance effort and cost, she said. Part of the final delivery was a service manual, including extra parts and vendor recommendations.
Paul McKenna, one of the seniors who worked on the project, says, “I am glad we could help Pam out. Hopefully our project will help reduce the labors associated with her daily chores. Watching Pam use our system was very satisfying.”
Another group of Biological and Agricultural Engineering students – Jonathan Casey, Jon Harrell, Josh Johnson, Matt Pace and Madison Walters – devoted their senior design project to developing an all-terrain motorized wheelchair to help farmers with disabilities.
Using a standard power wheelchair donated by N.C. AgrAbility, the students stripped it down, designed a new, heavier-duty frame, and developed other accessibility features like a wider wheel base for greater stability on uneven terrain and an easy-to-reach swivel cargo bed on the back.
They also designed an efficient chain system: If the chain breaks, the vehicle simply switches from four-wheel-drive to two-wheel-drive without shutting down.
“This project was inspired by an article sent to us about a man who needed a power chair but couldn’t afford one,” Proctor says. “We wanted to demonstrate how someone could take a standard chair and turn it into something more robust that could give them more independence without costing as much money as buying it new.”
The average cost of a power chair is around $25,000, Proctor says.
“The idea behind this project was to be able to take what you can get and make what you need,” she says.
The wheelchair will be used as a demonstration prototype that will travel with N.C. AgrAbility to statewide farm and trade shows.
“My favorite part of the senior design project was being given a limitless opportunity to research and develop an all-terrain power chair that would benefit disabled individuals in the agricultural community,” says team member Jonathan Casey. “Through spare parts from a donated wheelchair, computer-aided design programs, team effort and long nights of hard work in Weaver Labs, we created a one-of-a-kind product.”
Despite long hours and lots of trial-and-error, Casey says the project was very rewarding.
“It is a fantastic feeling knowing that you have created a physical device that will hopefully benefit a person with special needs,” he says.
The senior design projects were funded in large part by the BAE Department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and by undergraduate research grant awards, with 10 percent of funding coming from AgrAbility, due to restrictions on the use of federal funds, Proctor says. Individuals who wish to support projects like these can donate to the department’s enhancement fund.
“A lot of these students don’t come from agricultural backgrounds, so we want them to understand what it means to farm, to understand the culture of agriculture,” Proctor says. “These projects encourage them to explore the future of farming with a disability or health-related problem.
“Above all,” she says, “the students realize they’ve accomplished something that is going to make a difference.”
– Suzanne Stanard