Dairy Farmer Remains Active Despite Knee and Back Problems

Located in the hills of Somerset County you will find Little Piney Farm, a dairy farm owned and operated by Richard Coughenour and his family. The farm consists of raising approximately 7 beef cows and 40 dairy cattle, on 234 acres. Acreage includes 95 hay, 55 corn, and 10 oats. “I’ve been a dairy farmer all my life,” Coughenour said. Due to his father’s health condition as a disabled Veteran, Coughenour took over his family’s farm at a young age. “I had a fairly heavy workload when I was younger, and I guess I’m paying the price for it now.”

In 1998, Coughenour was involved in an animal incident that resulted in orthopedic impairment in his knee, which caused fluid in his knee and progressed to swelling. For about two years after the incident, Coughenour continued to receive medical treatment for his knee. In addition to his knee injury, Coughenour was diagnosed with back impairment in 2002-2003. This impairment was caused by completing daily farm responsibilities. Also, as with many farmers, Coughenour has difficulties with pain when required to squat, during repetitive lower extremity activities, and activities that require an increased range of motion of the lumbar spine.

Over the years, Coughenour’s daily farm duties consist of milking, fieldwork, feeding, hay making and operating the tractor and equipment. In order to keep completing these tasks, Coughenour contacted AgrAbility to find out how they could help him.

An important part of the AgrAbility process is connecting farmers to additional resources that can assist in their journey to independence on the farm. A key resource is the Office for Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), which is part of the PA Department of Labor and Industry. In Pennsylvania, OVR works with people who need to make career adjustments due to injuries or illness.

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This John Deere Gator saves Richard many steps doing his daily farm chores, such as bringing calves in from the pasture after a cow has calved. Richard is driving while his son Bradley holds the newborn Brown Swiss heifer named Snuggles and Bo, the lab, rides along. (Photo credit: Jackie Coughenour)

In 2006, AgrAbility staff member Linda Fetzer completed an on-farm assessment that helped Coughenour identify the duties he would most like to be able to complete independently. Once he qualified for OVR services through an individual review process, funding was available to Coughenour for a number of on-farm adjustments. Three goals were set in order to improve Coughenour’s daily tasks that involved milking, farm mobility, and accessing and operating the machinery.

Coughenour received modifications that fulfilled the three goals. These included pit parlor matting, a John Deere Gator utility vehicle to increase mobility and make completing tasks easier, steps for his tractor, and suspension seating for two of his tractors.

In 2014, Coughenour contacted AgrAbility a second time due to his health condition affecting his ability to complete necessary farm chores and tasks. During the on-farm assessment, completed by AgrAbility staff members Erica Bobbitt and Dr. Connie Baggett, Coughenour explained that in 2007 he underwent knee surgery, which later turned into total knee replacement in 2009. He also explained that he was suffering from additional back problems, specifically degenerative disc disease and spinal stenosis.

After Coughenour went through the OVR process, he received funding for modifications. These modifications consisted of new air ride suspension seats for his tractors, which are much more suitable for supporting and positioning Coughenour as he completes daily tasks. Additional modifications consist of seat replacement in his John Deere Gator utility vehicle, which he uses for most farm activities and would aid in proper tolerance and positioning. Coughenour also received rubber cushion interlocking matting for his milking parlor, which offer much more support and prevention of manure from seeping underneath the matting, and a crowd gate. The crowd gate helps to move cows to the milking parlor once they are in the barn. Additionally, Coughenour received Bergman Speed Hitches. While speaking with Mrs. Coughenour, she explained that the hitches allow him to hook up and unhook forage wagons, to and from the forage harvester, without getting in and out of the tractor. “Every time I change from a loaded wagon to an empty wagon I would have to get out of the tractor two times and back in the tractor two times. Days that we cut 14 or 16 loads that saves a lot strain on my knees and back.” Coughenour said.

Coughenour explained that Wanda Satzer of OVR was instrumental in receiving the crowd gate modification. “I had a real good lady working at OVR and she fought good for me. Wanda grew up around Bedford County and knows farming, and that was very helpful in that respect.” Coughenour said. “The crowd gate has been really helpful.”

Coughenour is very satisfied with his involvement in AgrAbility and when asked about recommending it to other farmers with a disability he said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I already have.”

To find out more information about AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians, visit www.AgrAbilityPA.org or call (814) 867-5288.

Written by Colleen Pease, Graduate Assistant – AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians

Veteran Grows a Farming Career

Cathie Dibert served her country as a Specialist E4 in Army military intelligence. Returning to the Claysburg area, she became a registered nurse, and now, a farmer.

Cathie knew she would have to retire from nursing after a heart attack at 35. She needed something that allowed her to have a flexible schedule, good exercise, and plenty of rest. Her husband Rodney Dibert, a building contractor, had acquired the family farm that consisted of 68 acres. But more than 50 of those were mountainous.

“We had five beef cattle, a few run-down outbuildings, and a small amount of ground that might be productive,” said Cathie. Thus, Green“er’’ Acres Farm was born. “I actually grow all of my vegetables on less than an acre of ground,” she said.

Green“er” Acres produce is sold under the Homegrown by Heroes and Pennsylvania Preferred labeling programs. The Homegrown by Heroes label is open to all farmer veterans. Pennsylvania Preferred denotes the products are grown in Pennsylvania.

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Cathie’s high tunnel is her pride and joy. Many luscious vegetables are started here.

To start, Cathie received some assistance from the Farmer Veterans Coalition. The program identifies the needs and furthers the agriculture careers of those who have served their country and are now serving their communities through farming. Cathie has been working to help start a Pennsylvania coalition so other veteran farmers can get future help. It takes 10 people to form such a coalition.

A few years ago, Cathie received a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service grant to install a high tunnel with deep irrigation for her farm. Because plants are protected from the weather, high tunnel tomatoes are protected from blight. The tunnel is the site of a huge array of vegetables including garlic, onions, broccoli, cabbage, Swiss chard, kale, beets, and tomatoes.

Cathie added wall mounts in the tunnel to grow strawberries. She attempted raspberry bushes but found they want to take over the tunnel. Her goal is to have another high tunnel for fruits. “We are putting almost everything we make back into the business at this time,” she said.

With her husband in contracting, the couple has learned to recycle many things. Rodney built her a small greenhouse out of leftover lumber. He also built her a seed starting spot in the basement of their home.

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Cathie Dibert at work in her raised beds located on a hillside. The ground would otherwise be unusable.

For her part, Cathie constructed raised garden beds on some of her hillier property sections to expand her growing space. She struck up a deal with the local Intermunicipal Relations Committee, a recycling organization in nearby Altoona. She gets rich topsoil that plants thrive in. Her four raised beds are about 3 feet by 25 feet located in what would have been an unusable space. Most of the crops are chemical-free. Organic and conventional growing practices are used when appropriate.

Cathie also worked with AgrAbility PA and the PA Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR). Their support included a visit from an occupational therapist and a farm assessment of her property to identify modifications and equipment that would facilitate her farming efforts. Because she was eligible to receive their services, OVR provided funding for Cathie to acquire a John Deere Gator so that she could easily access different areas of the farm while reducing physical strain, especially on her heart.

Now into her 13th year of farming and with eight years of Farmers’ Markets under her belt, Cathie said she is still constantly learning. She’s also always looking for ways to be slightly different. She likes to offer vegetables that come in unusual hues, such as purple tomatoes, or beans, or peppers, explaining that “the different colors mean they have more antioxidants.” She also hosts a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. She tries to have what the people want and if possible, be the first at the local Farmers’ Market with whatever vegetable ripens next. In addition to the vegetables, Cathie offers eggs, chicken, and some pork.

“Truthfully, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without the help of AgrAbility PA and OVR. The Gator is indispensable in carrying the totes of produce up and down the hills of the farm in order to get them to market,” she said.

Part of Cathie’s story is reprinted with permission from Lancaster Farming, the leading Northeast and Mid-Atlantic farm newspaper, where she was featured in an article.

Managing Stress during Harvest Season

Harvest time can be one of the busiest and stressful times of the year for a farmer and their family.

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Farming is a multi-faceted way of life for many families in Pennsylvania. However, harvest time can be one of the busiest and stressful times of the year as farm families try to balance school, fall activities, and harvest while battling unpredictable weather condition.

Stress can negatively impact your health so it is important to take rest and stretch breaks, stay hydrated, eat healthy, and get adequate sleep. These tips may be easier said than done but are a step in the right direction to keeping yourself healthy during harvest season:

  • Exercise: Many farmers feel that the physical labor that they do on the farm is enough, but having a regular exercise or stretching program provides a break in your daily routine, benefits your overall health, and provides a constructive way to relieve excess energy. Strive to exercise three times per week for a minimum of 30 minutes.
  • Caffeine: Reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet. By eliminating this stimulant, a person may have reduced headaches, increased relaxation, improved sleep, a calmer mood—and, counter intuitively, more energy.
  • Humor: The old adage “laughter is the best medicine” isn’t inaccurate—laughter might help to reduce your stress, so explore ways (social groups, books, and so on) to add some laughter to your life.
  • Talking: Having a strong network of friends and family can help provide necessary support during stressful times. Make sure that you have a couple of people to whom you can vent your problems to help reduce built up stress.
  • Relaxation Techniques: There are simple relaxation techniques that can help you clear your mind and reduce tension. Techniques include deep breathing and taking mini-breaks during the day.
  • Sleep: If you are not getting enough sleep at night to be refreshed in the morning and energetic enough for the day, then you may need to consider a midday power nap.
  • Nutrition: Make sure that you are eating balanced meals throughout the day.
  • Breaks: Take some time from the stressful situation by going for a walk, spending some time alone, working on a hobby, meditating, and so on.


For more tips, resources, and information about stress, read the
Ag Safety & Health eXtension Community of Practice article.