Steward of the Future: Gary Roberson

All-terrain wheelchairs, truck lifts and garden scooters are among the solutions the North Carolina AgrAbility partnership has designed to help disabled farmers remain productive. Extension specialist and associate professor Dr. Gary Roberson, of North Carolina State University, discusses the program and the impact of student design projects for these farmers.

What Dr. Roberson has to say:
“I’m Gary Roberson, associate professor and extension specialist, biological and agricultural engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, NC State University. I’m the engineering consultant for the North Carolina AgrAbility project. AgrAbility is a partnership between North Carolina State, North Carolina A&T State University and East Carolina and the Agromedicine Institute where we assist farmers who have suffered some form of disabling injury or disabling illness maintain a level of productivity.

“We design or help design and develop assistive technology or adaptive technology that we can apply to tractors, combines – you name it. We’ve got several demonstration units here today. We’ll take a look at the garden scooter. That was one of our earlier projects. It’s designed to allow someone to be able to move through a garden and harvest produce or vegetables or whatever they want to do. It lets you get down close to the group so you don’t have to bend or stoop or crawl. The original design was developed by Dr. Mike Boyette here in the department. We’ve been making some modifications and improvements all along. We have student groups working on enhanced versions of it.

“We also have an all-terrain wheelchair. There are some commercial units out there, but this one is a standard power wheelchair that our students modified to make it all-terrain. They’ve been able to demonstrate it climbing hills, climbing steps, going through streams, so again if someone needs to go out and maybe go out around the fence line checking the status of livestock or maybe just going hunting or fishing, that’s a device that will help them do that.

“We’ve got a truck lift. There are commercial lifts available that you can put on the back of a truck that you can lift things like coolers or baskets of produce into the truck to take to the farmers market. This is one that’s much, much less expensive. And it’s also something that a farmer if he’s got a good shop can fabricate or can have fabricated locally. But again it’s designed to help make that task of lifting heavy objects into the back of the truck a lot easier.

“We’ve looked at other technologies, and in a lot of cases things that are available off the shelf, just find a way to adapt them to that role of making things a little easier for farmers that have these disabling or debilitating injuries or illnesses.

“The senior design aspect of our AgrAbility project is very unique to us, I think. We are one of the few –- maybe the only one –- that incorporates a senior design component into the AgrAbility program.
Some of the projects are things that we have gleaned from dealing with clients. Again Michele deals a lot one-on-one with clients so she gets a lot of ideas. We will formulate that, write it up and present it to the senior class. So we don’t twist their arms. The seniors are free to choose the projects they are interested in. However the last couple of years some of the first ones chosen are the AgrAbility projects because they see how practical it is and how useful it is for someone at the other end, the client, in other words.

“I think this work is important because we are trying to maintain productivity. Our farm population is steadily getting older. And a lot of knowledge and experience is out there, and a lot of these people aren’t ready to quit. So this is all about maintaining productivity, giving them the tools that they need so they can maintain that level of activity safely and comfortably.”

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