Farming with a physical impairment: Life is tough, but so are farmers

Farming is hard work and involves numerous risks. In a split second, an accident can turn your life upside down. Our farmers, however, are tough and passionate people: many of them will find solutions to be able to continue farming rather than giving up in the face of adversity. Belgian farmer Jean-Paul Dawance is one of those farmers.

Jean-Paul grew up on his parents’ farm in Ouffet (Liège, Belgium). At age twenty-eight, he had just taken over part of the family farm and had become a father. Farming was is whole life. But on that tragic day, more than 30 years ago, an accident changed his life forever. Jean-Paul was standing on a trailer loading bales of hay when it suddenly started rolling. As the trailer headed straight towards a fir plantation at high speed, Jean-Paul decided to jump. An act that probably saved his life, but also came with dramatic consequences. “I didn’t jump from very high, but had a very unlucky landing.” Suffering from fractured vertebrae and a severed spinal cord, Jean-Paul was faced with the horrifying news at the hospital: he would never walk again.

After five months in hospital and a long rehabilitation, Jean-Paul was at a crossroad. “Given my passion for farming and the fact that I had just taken over part of the farm, I decided to take my chances and restart my business. It wasn’t easy, but I had the support of my family.” With the help of his family and Jean-Louis, the village’s ingenious agricultural machinery dealer, Jean-Paul was able to try out a slightly modified tractor to accommodate his handicap and continue his work. One year after the accident, he was behind the steering wheel again. Now, all those years later, Jean-Paul is still working on the farm behind the wheel of his fourth modified tractor. “Thanks to the tractors and a lot of help from my brother, my wife and now also my godchild, I can continue to work on the farm.”

Jean-Paul and his family run a dairy and arable farm with 80 hectares of wheat, barley, rapeseed, fodder beet and maize and another 80 hectares of pastures. In addition to this, they also do contractual work, specializing in anything from sowing, harvesting and baling to various other jobs. Jean-Paul is in charge of the tedding-related activities on 1500 hectares of hay. “Once I had overcome my hesitation to continue farm work, it took a lot of thinking to resolve the problem of getting into a tractor. Driving a tractor is one of my greatest pleasures, but it also comes with a part of anxiety since I cannot get out of it on my own in case of trouble.”

Modified tractors
Jean-Paul’s first modified tractor was a Zetor. The modifications were little: a jack on the brake pedal, another on the clutch pedal, the seat fitted on the side of the tractor with a hangar door rail and a winch with wheels : “it gave me a chance to try it out. I didn’t want to invest a lot because I didn’t know if my spinal injury would allow me to work, so I drove with a tractor the way one would drive a wheelloader. After four years and the constatation that his health allowed him to continue working, Jean-Paul opted for a more modern tractor and bought a Steyr, much more adapted to his handicap. He would drive this tractor for ten years before getting another, even more modern Steyr with an automatic gearbox. Each new tractor was modified by Jean-Louis, who always had new ideas and tricks. “More ease and security! I put in 14,000 hours on those two tractors before trading in the third for a new Steyr.”

“My latest tractor first came to the dealer, who made some of the adjustments, and was then transported to Graf-Fahrzeugtechnik GmbH in Germany. The dieseltank had to be moved so that it would take up less space to mount a lift, which was a lot of work.” The arrangement of the brakes, with a jack and a distributor on the armrest, three cameras at the rear of the tractor to allow Jean-Paul to see everything without having to turn around, was installed by Marchandise SA (Engis, Belgium) who also took care of a large part of the paperwork and transport. It took six weeks before Jean-Paul was able to take over the controls of his new tractor.

“Thanks to the CVT, I already had all the functions in hand, so that was one less modification. Mounting everything was the most expensive part of the work and represented a 30.000 euro investment. Fortunately, a local organisation for the quality of life of people with disabilities helped me (AVIQ – Agence pour une Vie de Qualité). My new tractor is very practical and I feel safe thanks to the placement of brakes and cameras. The only help I need is to attach my machine and after that, I can do everything myself.”

In addition to his Steyr tractor, Jean-Paul also has an Avant wheelloader. This one didn’t have to be heavily adapted since it has joysticks, which was well suited to his handicap since he does everything with his hands. “We just had to install safety bars as a fall prevention measure. I use the Avant to feed the animals, which takes up about 800 hours a year. The new Steyr already has 1,300 hours after about 6 months.”

Working with a disability
While Jean-Paul is happy to be able to continue in his job, he does not hide the fact that it is very hard to work with his disability. “Morally it’s very hard. Even after 30 years, I have days that I spend in tears. There is the pleasure of driving a tractor, but there are also all the other worries that come with my health: I have had and still have (bed)sores, and I have incontinence problems that must be managed while working. On a busy day, I often get in the tractor at 9am and don’t come back down until after 10pm. So I have to make sure I take everything I need for the day when I get in. I spend long days and many hours in the cabin, dealing with all the problems that come with my condition.”

“Honestly, it’s very hard, but to someone in my situation I would say: if you are motivated and can afford it, you can do what I do. On the other hand, I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t been surrounded by my family:  even if I can work, I need help and there are some things I just can’t access. My wife has been my rock throughout this ordeal and my daughter has also always been there for me. This situation has not been easy for my loved ones either and they too have had to make a lot of concessions. I am happy that their support has allowed me to continue, however, because this work is my reason to live.”



Text: Kim Schoukens
Images : Antoon Vanderstraeten

Author: Antoon

1 thought on “Farming with a physical impairment: Life is tough, but so are farmers

  1. Thanks for sharing your your precious story. God bless you, your family and your tractor dealership who was able to accomplish your needs due to your handicap, and you were able to continue your occupation which you love so much. Farmers lives matter. I was born and raised and was trained by helping my Dad and brother on the family ranch/dairy farm until I got married at 21 yrs old. This farm girl will always be in favor of farmers, ranchers, dairymen. I understand the importance of these careers to put food on our tables for our families. Take care and be safe. Good bless you, your families and your supporters.

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