Poor eyesight and light sensitivity don’t dim Lee Howerton’s vision for a bright future as farmer and rancher.
At 52, Howerton hopes to farm for years to come. It’s all he’s ever known, all he ever hopes to know, he says. His family and livestock rely on him. And he refuses to disappoint either.
With help from the Missouri AgrAbility Project, he and his wife, Sara, altered their farming operation, practices, equipment and lifestyle so the farm can continue to support the family.
Health and wealth go hand in hand, says Karen Funkenbusch, project director and University of Missouri Extension state health specialist.
While the Missouri AgrAbility Project does not provide direct funding or equipment to clients, AgrAbility staff work with third-party funding sources to help farmers obtain needed assistive technologies, adapted devices or modifications, Funkenbusch says.
Partners include the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and Rehabilitation Services for the Blind (RSB), a program of the state Department of Social Services.
Managing Howerton’s 1,400-acre operation is no small task. He grazes 120 head of cows and a sheep flock on Knox County land owned by several generations of his family. He sells feeder lambs, feeder calves, grazes about 500 acres and manages his mother’s crop and Conservation Reserve Program ground.
Howerton quit row crops to avoid farm equipment he no longer feels safe operating. He now rotational grazes, moving cattle from field to field for fresh forage.
Blacktop roads and streams present special challenges on moving day. His cattle are docile and move easily most days.
Wild cows hold no place in the Howerton herd. Many farmers rely on seeing a “wild look” in the eyes of cattle that can run roughshod over humans. Howerton can’t see their eyes at a safe distance, so he culls uncooperative cows.
Howerton wears prescription dark glasses for light sensitivity and carries a monocular in his pocket.
An enclosed all-terrain vehicle is his ride to, from and at work. He drives the ATV across pastures to check on waterways, cattle and newborn calves. So that Howerton can access all of his acreage, AgrAbility staff mapped out safe routes across pastures broken up by the Fabius River, fences and tree lines.
Even with the ATV, checking cattle carries hazards for man and cow. Howerton has run over newborn calves lying in tall grass. The calves often appear only as shadows to Howerton.
Howerton switched to May-to-October calving to avoid winter calving. This gives him more daylight hours to check newborn calves.
Time and daylight are critical to safety. “I have to learn to take my time,” he says. “When I hurry, an accident is waiting to happen.”
Howerton’s wife is an extra set of eyes for safety. They married young and she knew of his vision problems from the start. But it’s something you never really get used to, she says. “After 30 years, I’m still shocked at how bad his eyesight is,” she says.
AgrAbility and RSB are replacing an old, unsafe squeeze chute that controls cattle during vaccinations, ear tagging, branding and castration. “Handling cows can be scary,” she admits.
Lee has trouble seeing the markings on the vaccination bottle. As Lee’s vision worsens, he hires people to do jobs he and Sara once did.
The Howertons also modified their sheep operation. They replaced wool sheep with hair sheep that don’t require shearing and switched lambing time to May.
Howerton reads farm magazines and newspapers with a closed-circuit television (CCTV). The device enlarges reading materials on a screen. It is slow and tedious, but the process allows the avid reader to keep abreast of technology and trends.
AgrAbility and RSB will update Howerton’s CCTV equipment to a text-to-speech reader. A new monocular with long eye relief will let him read cattle ear tags, brands and other things in the distance. A hand-held high-definition magnifier will help Howerton read medicine bottle labels, phones and documents.
Just as important, the new reader allows Howerton to read to his youngest son, Tage. The 8-year-old can hold a book and the words are projected onto a large screen. The reader also helps him with farm record keeping.
Simple items such as specially designed thermometers help him to safely enjoy social activities such as cookouts.
“AgrAbility helps people function better on many different levels,” Funkenbusch says. “A farmer or rancher’s health impacts the entire network of their family, friends and community.”
Howerton is a repeat AgrAbility client. He did well after receiving help about five years ago. As his health and needs changed, he asked AgrAbility to reopen his case.
“AgrAbility helped me find practical solutions to everyday problems brought on by low vision,” Howerton says.