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Program enables youth to enter turf business
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Eighteen-year-old Jonathan Greer runs his own wholesale turfgrass business from his wheelchair with help of partners brought together by Mississippi State University's AgrAbility.
Jonathan's father, Grover Greer, farms about 1,750 acres of cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat in Sharkey County. About a year ago, Greer said they looked for occupations where Jonathan's cerebral palsy would not be a disadvantage.
"He had gone about as far as he could in school, and his interest was in the outdoors," Greer said. "When you have a child with one of these situations, you try a lot of different things."
After deciding that greenhouse production required more than could be done from a wheelchair and seeing his ability to maintain his family's lawn, AgrAbility specialists decided that Jonathan could manage a turfgrass production.
"He has about 25 acres of hybrid Bermuda planted last August," Greer said. "We worked out a joint venture with someone already in the business who needed more production. They planted it, and he's going to water, fertilize and mow it."
The company will plant, spray and harvest the grass. Each of these procedures requires specialized equipment, and most turfgrass producers hire this chore out.
"This arrangement will allow him to be a wholesale turf producer," Greer said.
Jonathan's business is called Ability Turf, and he works it using a specially-modified John Deere tractor. Herb Willcutt, agricultural and biological engineer with MSU's Extension Service, modified the tractor for Jonathan.
"The tractor had been bought specifically for Jonathan's needs and had a hydrostatic transmission. There is no clutch or brakes that he has to activate," Willcutt said.
Willcutt modified the tractor's two foot petal forward and reverse controls to make them hand-controlled. He also moved the switch for the cruise control from the dashboard to the lever that now provides one-handed driving controls.
Willcutt said John Deere was extremely helpful in this process. The company let the university borrow at no charge a model of the tractor that Jonathan has. Willcutt was able to make the custom modifications on this tractor, take them off and install them on Jonathan's tractor.
"The university paid for my time and the materials for the modifications were donated," Willcutt said. "This is very much a custom fit, and because of that, it would have been very expensive, and possibly even impossible, to get someone else to do the work."
In addition to the turfgrass production, Jonathan is producing miniature cotton bales for sale. He uses an old cotton press Willcutt and others modified for hand controls.
Emily Knight, AgrAbility program assistant, said AgrAbility, a partnership between MSU's Extension Service and a statewide, non-profit disability service organization, is mainly an educational program.
"We want everyone to realize the abilities that people with a physical disadvantage have, and to realize that there are many ways to assist them in working," Knight said. "AgrAbility can't buy equipment or pay for modifications, but it can recommend the most suitable equipment and safest way to make the modifications."
AgrAbility, available in Mississippi since 1997, was established nationally in 1991 and is active in 18 states. The Mississippi project has worked with the Mississippi Society for Disabilities -- formerly Easter Seals Mississippi, MSU's T.K. Martin Center for Technology and Disability and the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.
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