The snow has been melting rapidly and it seems as though spring is here. In the rhythm of April, many people began their vegetable and flower starts and now many Alaskans are looking to clear their growing plots of the last snow cover so as to get the sun on that soil!

And although I teach about several “building” techniques each spring to lengthen the growing season through maximizing the sun’s solar heat, I think it’s important to look at very real human factors in getting the gardens productive, such as backs, knees and hands. We can build and stage the growing area, but if the gardeners themselves are being hampered, then the harvest may not happen (at least to the extent planned for). Aches and pains can spoil the best of layouts and plans.

Almost three decades ago, about 300 miles from Fairbanks, I was on the governing board of a unique nonprofit ranch that made horticulture and animal care a crucial part of a half-dozen disabled Alaskans’ lives. It was one-of-a-kind. The residents lived together in one dwelling on the “ranch” and had daily routines of fertilizing greenhouse plants, weeding, watering, and feeding animals as a way to not only have fresh foods for their congregate meals but also to learn work ethics, life care lessons and to exercise their bodies as they experienced developmental and physiological effects from Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, etc.  

Yet in addition, being middle- to older-aged, they also dealt with the daily aches and pains that come with aging, which almost every Alaskan encounters, such as fingers that don’t close or bend well due to arthritis pain, backs that do not take as much lifting without discomfort, creaky knees and dimming eyesight.

But focusing on what abilities each resident yet had and how to enhance each, was the key to keep them moving and working (along with a good dose of teamwork to cover for each other on tough days). In cases where lifting was required, a suspender type of Velcro waist belt was worn to cover the lower back with support. Where knees had difficulty bending, there were roofer-style knee pads that would adjust with straps behind the knee cap.  

Carts could be used where there was a trail down to the chicken coop and barn area. Heat and cold were applied after the workday. Generic magnifying framed glasses were used by another resident to aid with up-close visuals. (And though I don’t recall specific modified implements being used there for getting a better grip on shovels and trowels, many such adaptive tools have been created. They work for those who have had a developmental disability since birth or who have merely been hampered by getting older).

While most of the interventions and items above are now covered in the mainstream marketplace via online sites or even in the gardening sections of building supply stores, there are many adaptive aids and third-party altered tools that can be viewed at “The Toolbox” (  

This website has almost every imaginable item that has been created to enhance various agriculturally based abilities for the farm, ranch, or in the garden. It is brought to you by the United States Department of Agricultures’ AgrAbility program.  

The key is in the name of the enterprise: AgrAbility. Regardless of the causes or when we start to experience trouble in getting through daily jobs in field agriculture, ranching, commercial fishing or logging, there is help by focusing on sustaining abilities by utilizing what AgrAbility has available for technical assistance, in-the-field assessments and referrals. And yes, we can also answer questions for the subsistence use, noncommercial food growers throughout Alaska! You can contact me at 907-474-6366 for more information on how AgrAbility can help you balance disabilities that may be hampering your abilities!

Art Nash is the statewide Energy Specialist for UAF Cooperative Extension Service, and has been director of the AgrAbility program for its half decade of serving Alaskans.

Art Nash is the Extension energy and radon specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 907-474-6366 or by email at