Ron Burleson on the farm

Episode 005: Ron Burlson, back on the tractor and out in the field

On today’s show, we’ll meet Ron Burlson and his wife Suzy, and hear the amazing story of rehabilitation engineering assistive technology and rehabilitation counseling as we get Ron back on his tractor and on to the challenges of farming in 2015 as a farmer with a disability

Transcribed by Cameron Payne Scott

May 27, 2015

Welcome to the VR Workforce Studio: inspiration, education and affirmation at work!  Stories about individuals with disabilities, the champions of business and industry who hire individuals with disabilities, and the vocational rehabilitation professionals who have dedicated their lives and careers to helping individuals with disabilities go to work so they can lead more productive lives, build our workforce, and move our economy forward.

On today’s show, we’ll meet Ron Burlson and his wife Suzy, and hear the amazing story of rehabilitation engineering assistive technology and rehabilitation counseling as we get Ron back on his tractor and on to the challenges of farming in 2015 as a farmer with a disability.

Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry by far.  Nothing else even comes close.  The industry has an economic impact of $52 billion annually, provides nearly 311,000 jobs across the Commonwealth.  So here is a fun fact for you: Virginia has nearly 46,000 farms.  Driving to work today, I saw that bumper sticker: “No Farms, No Food.” This show will bring that into a clear focus for you.

Here’s also a statistic that might surprise you.  Just stop for a minute, ask yourself “How old do you think the average Virginia farmer is”?  The average age of a farmer in Virginia: 59 ½ years old, with just over a third of Virginia’s farmers at 65 years or older.  So farms cover 8.3 million acres or approximately a third of the total land area in Virginia.  That is about 25.3 million acres.  So as we look at farming and farmers, the project number of farmers with disabilities is a little harder to estimate.  We got some information from Bob Grisso at AgrAbility.  He said that around 10% probably have disabilities.  So, we have an aging farmer workforce, working in adverse and oftentimes dangerous conditions. So disabilities among farmers is something you are going to hear about.  Our state VR agency, the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, Woodrow Wilson, and many of our agency partners are all in the game to help farmers who happen to have a disability overcome the obstacles to farming and get them back into the life they love, producing the food we love to eat here in Virginia.

So up next, you’ll hear one of these stories, how assistive technology, rehabilitation engineering, vocational rehabilitation, and, I think the most important ingredient, that fierce determination and commitment from one Virginia farmer that made a winning combination that helped Ron (Burlson) get back on the tractor, out in the field, and ready to take on the challenges of farming in 2015 and beyond.

In the studio today, Ron and Suzy Burlson.  Tell us where your farm is and how you make a living farming?

BURLSON (RON):  We’re in Orange County.  Were in a little town that isn’t even a town; it’s just a wide spot in the road called Unionville.  We keep some beef cows and our main livelihood is our greenhouses.  We grow annuals for southern states, little Mom ‘N’ Pop stores, and that kind of thing.  We deal with a lot of little nurseries and that kind of thing.  And that is where our livelihood comes from.  The cows are better.  In the last couple of years, the price of cattle has been real good.  But up until now, they haven’t been all that great.  It is just something that I like to do.

What kind of cows?

BURLSON (RON):  A little bit of everything.  But I primarily use Angus bulls.  But most of my cows that are Angus are Simmental-cross.

Ron, someone said that farming is a dangerous occupation.

BURLSON (RON):  That’s what got me into trouble.  We had a first-calf heifer.  She was having trouble having the calf.  We got her in, and we got the apparatus on the calf to pull him.  And, me and her, we pulled the calf and it takes alot of pressure pulling to get the calf to come out.  I was pulling and I fell backwards right down on my behind right flat down.  I didn’t hit my head or anything.  And I snapped my neck back, and that was what the doctor told me caused my stroke.  I don’t know, that’s about the 2nd or 3rd time a cow has tried to kill me.

So, when did you realize you were having a stroke?

BURLSON (RON):  I worked the rest of the day from that point on.  I worked for the rest of the day and that evening.  Came in to eat supper and I felt like I had a headache.  I don’t get a headache very often.  I felt like I had a headache and I said, “I’m going on to bed.”  I went upstairs to bed and like I never missed a step; we never had a problem.  We never had no notion that I was going to have a stroke.   About an hour later, I got up out of bed and I went downstairs to get me some Tylenol and went to the bathroom.  Turned around there, and next thing I knew I was laying over in the bathtub.  Suzy came down the steps and said, “You done had a stroke!”  I said, “No, I haven’t.”  I said, “A stroke would hurt more than that.”  It didn’t hurt a bit, except for falling in the tub [Burlson laughs].


Suzy, was it clear to you that Ron had a stroke?

BURLSON (SUZY):  It was very obvious.  The whole right side: eye was droopy, slurring speech, couldn’t grip my hand.  So I called 911.  And he’s the whole time telling me, “I’m fine!  Don’t call 911!” [Suzy laughs].

BURLSON (RON):  Well, within two hours’ time, you call the ambulance and all of that.  Well, they took me to Mary Washington Hospital which is kind of the closest thing to us.  I met this guy, his name is Dr. Puffenbauger [?] And then they started working on me.  I ended up in Health South (UVA) in Charlottesville after that.

So this is a pretty serious stroke.   How has it affected you?

BURLSON (RON):  Everything on my right side is affected.  And I was right handed.  Now, I am left-handed.  I gotta be! [Laughs].  I can’t write my name too good, not to where you can read it, I don’t think.  But right now, my arm and hand on my right side doesn’t work.  But my leg is getting a lot better, a whole lot better from what it was.  I don’t think I talk as good as I used to talk.  When I’m eating, I have to be careful.  I have to use a straw to drink with most of the time because I can’t keep liquid in my mouth.  It runs out the right side of my mouth over here.  My foot drags down all of the time, that’s the main problem I have with my walking.  If I take this brace off, I can’t walk worth a darn, man.  With the brace on, I can do pretty good, I think.

Greta Nelson is a physical therapist who helped Ron begin the painstaking process of physical therapy with the goal of keeping his farm operating.  Greta, welcome to the podcast.  Tell us about your work with Ron.

NELSON:  Well, he had had his stroke.  So, we were looking at facilitating ways that he could get return in his upper extremity.  We also were looking at trying to strengthening his lower extremities.  We did some orthotic management just to compensate for his limited motor return in his leg.  And that was interesting too because he ended up purchasing the shoes so that DARS can purchase the brace so they could get put together so that he could use that for his ambulation.  We did a lot of PT and OT co-treatment or simulation together of his work-related tasks.  Some of the examples of what we did were just climbing up lifts in a van of various heights just as if he would need to get in and out of his tractor.  Riding some mechanical lifts up and down because his delivery truck had a mechanical lift that would take the plants up into the truck and then it would come down to pick up more plants.  We worked on accessing a golf cart that was here to simulate his utility vehicle which was either a mule or a gator that he had borrowed from friends during his program to actually try on the weekends when he went home.  We worked on walking on various trains just because of the various farmlands and differences of surfaces he would have to walk up through.  We worked at pushing a bellhop cart that would simulate more of… (he had these plants that he had to put on carts that were similar to a bellhop, a little bit more extensive than our bellhop cart) but we use that to simulate that.  We also worked on stepping up and down on steps because he owned a delivery truck that had some steps that he had to use to get into it. And then, there was also work on just carrying and lifting pots for his greenhouse.  We worked on him actually carrying something where he could carry the pot in his hand while he was walking or he worked with reachers where he could lift the pots from the ground when they were either lightweight or didn’t have anything in them.

How did you get Ron strong enough to go back out on the farm again?

NELSON:  He knew his specific work needs because he already owned his farm.  He already owned his greenhouse.  He was very realistic on what he could do and what others might need to help him to do.  It was great because he went home every weekend and he was able to trial and implement the things he learned over the weekends and then he would return on Mondays and he would actually come back with good feedback.  He was running his business while he was here in Rothrock Hall.  Not interrupting his therapies in anyway, but trying to maintain partnerships he had already established.  And actually running his business as well as just getting his business ready for when he was going to be discharged from his program.

It is time for every farmer’s favorite conversation.  Ron, let’s talk tractors.  So, you got a new tractor.  Tell us about it!

BURLSON (RON):  Like I said, I had two-wheel drive.  I had intended on getting a four-wheel drive.  As soon as I had the stroke, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do what I had done before with a two-wheel drive tractor.  What tickled me was I had been talking back and forth with this guy.  And I told Sonja and Susan, I said “Well, he isn’t far from here.”  And I said, “I’m going to go and take a look at it.”  Because Susan was my driving instructor; she was always looking for places for us to go, you know, to drive to.  I’m not big into just going out and riding.  No, I’ve got to have a purpose.  There must be a reason as to why I am going down there.   Anyway, I said “You don’t have to take me up there.  But I’d like to go up and look at it.”  And they said, “No.  You are not buying a tractor that you cannot get into.  We’re going to see if you can get into this tractor.”  So they helped me.  They went up there and helped me get up the steps and all that stuff.  So I got into the tractor.  And we eventually bought it.

What kind of tractor was it?

BURLSON (RON):  It is a Kubota.  We eventually bought it and then took it home and it is such a struggle to get in.  I mean, I could get in.  I’m not going to say “No problem.”  But I got in every time I could get into the seat.  But, like I said, I was wore out when I got up the steps.  And I was wore out by the time I got in there.  Didn’t feel like doing anything after I got in there.

So, how did you overcome the challenges of getting yourself up into the tractor?

BURLSON (RON):  I met Dave Law, and he designed this lift, put it on there.  And he brought over there to the house, welded that thing onto the tractor.  Yeah, I couldn’t take it somewhere at that time, you know, couldn’t have gone somewhere because we were feeding at the time.  And that was I primarily used it for, which was feeding round bales.

Dave Law is a rehabilitation engineer for the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.  Dave, welcome to the VR Workforce Studio!  How do you approach something as complex as a tractor modification for an operator with Ron’s circumstances?

LAW:  First thing I did was contacted AgrAbility to find out if they had done something to a Kubota.  And they are in a situation out in the Midwest where they use mainly John Deere products and Case IH.  But they had not done a Kubota.  And so from that point, I knew we were going to have to construct it ourselves.  So, we measured and visited the farm and saw what the situation was that warranted intervention.  And from there it was just design a man lift that would bring him from the ground up to floor level in the cab and then hopefully modify what needed changing in the cab so that he could operate it.  It took a couple visits, and a little tweaking here and there, but we built the lift, took it over with our mobile unit, and installed it on the tractor, got him on it, ran him up, and he couldn’t get in the cab.  He’s just a big guy!  And so, we realized we were going to have to make some changes inside the cab.  He couldn’t get under the steering when with his braces, his long-leg brace.  And so we had to raise the steering column 3 ½ inches and then we put grab bars strategically placed where he could reach them and comfortably transfer over into the seat.  We moved the seat back about 3 inches and dropped it about 2 inches and just opened up some knee room under the steering wheel for him.  And then, it was a matter of then moving all of the controls that he would require to operate the loader to the left side to his good arm.  And from there, it was just gung ho.  We got him on it; he got into the cab by himself, and was able to operate the tractor.

So, how is the tractor working now?

BURLSON (RON):  The lift that Dave Law put on my tractor, that is a big, big help, because now I can feed my own cows.  I can take a bale of hay out to my cows.  I don’t have to ask somebody else to do it.  That’s helped me alot.  Again, the grab bars, I’ll tell you what.  He put grab bars everywhere in there.  So anywhere I reach, I can get a hold of something, help pull me in there.  The tractor was set up with all controls on the right hand side.  He moved my PTO (Power-Take-Off) which runs to the implements behind you, which is dangerous if you can’t control that, because that power-take-off shaft is one of the #1 causes of accidents on the farm. You know, people get tangled up in that thing.  So you need to cut it on and off as quickly as possible.  So he moved that over and I think that’s a big help.  He moved my steering wheel up so I could get my leg underneath of that.

Greta, has the team modified any other equipment?

NELSON:  We also worked on driving during his program.  OT had worked on that and actually set up his truck to drive with a left-foot accelerator.  And then also took him to the DMV to get him retested for his written and driving tests.  And that allowed him to continue to do his personal and work transit to allow him to meet with his clients and to pick up what he needed for his farm and the community and transport it back to his farm.

You give it the gas with your left foot?

BURLSON (RON):  Over here, they put a left-foot accelerator in my pickup.  That helped me out alot because I cannot drive my pickup without it.


What other modifications have you and the team worked out?

BURLSON (RON):  The little stuff that everyone does.  Doesn’t matter if you are farming or not.  Like putting your shoes on.  They made me a shoe-horn so that I can get my shoe on my right foot.  And, they made this brace for my leg over here or they hooked me up with the people who made it.  And that helped me to walk a whole lot better.

Greta, tell us about the visit out to Ron’s home.

NELSON:  Um, on that home visit, there was also a look at allowing some modifications to his bathrooms to allow him to have a roll-in shower so that he could actually stand and take his showers after a hard day’s work, using grab bars to do that.  So, it was pretty cool to go out to his farm and see the different things that he would do and actually have him try them while we were there and then explain to us more all of the different things that we had to look at and help figure out and problem solve with him.

Ok, so it has almost been a year since the stroke.  And, is the farm up and running now?

BURLSON (RON):  Oh yeah!  We are in our heaviest season right now as far as selling plants out of greenhouse.  I mean, you know, Mother’s Day is your big weekend.

So how has the farm family and the farming community rallied around you during this challenge?

BURLSON (RON):  We’re members of Farm Bureau.  All of my guys who are on the Farm Bureau Board with me, they have offered help.  And I was a 4H volunteer for years and years and years.  Thirteen years I was the leader of the Livestock Club.  While I was in the hospital, they came out and helped her.

BURLSON (SUZY):  Yes, they kept us going last year because he had the stroke in February so the greenhouses had started and the 4H kids came out…I asked our 4H agent [Suzy begins to cry with joy] one day to just give me some help and about 60 people showed up where I needed five.  It was just tremendous!

So what advice would you have for an employer who is thinking of hiring somebody with a disability?

BURLSON (RON):  Don’t let your idea of what that disability does for that person fog your idea of what that person can really do.  You know, I get this from other people, not from myself.  But the other people that I saw could really do alot of stuff.

BURLSON (SUZY):  They may say, “His voice sounds different than it used to,” or someone might get the impression that he can’t do what he used to do.  But Ron does all of our sales.

So Dave Law, you have seen lots of folks over your career, folks with disabilities and challenges that they have faced.  How do you feel about Ron and his success?

LAW:  Ron is a fabulous fellow, just motivated; 120 percent motivation, willing to try anything.  And that was part of my joy of working with him because I knew he would try whatever we suggested he try.  And he gave it his very best, and we were able to bridge all of the gaps and get him to where he could do what he needed to do.

Suzy, what was it like to see your husband become a farmer with a disability and now be a co-partner or a witness to all of this success that he is experiencing?

BURLSON (SUZY):  It is always just wonderful to see him smile.  And so, the smile on his face when he got into the tractor.  He has a good day if he has been able to feel like that he did something that day as far as working.  That is what his lives for.  And that makes me feel good.  Of course, you know, it is hard at times to think of the things that he can’t do now.  But we try not to go there.  We just try to concentrate on what is good and the progress from one year and the hope of what there may still be.

So Ron, we’re going to wrap things up.  Where do you find the motivation to keep on farming?

BURLSON (RON):  Well, how I am going to make a living. [Laughs] You know, that’s the first thing I think about.  When I was kid, the people that my dad respected were all working people.  And, so, as long as you keep working!

Thanks to Ron and Suzy Burlson, Dave Law, Greta Nelson, AgrAbility, and all of the VR Workforce Studio staff and crew.  For they show the VR Workforce Studio is produced by Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center, which is a division for the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.  Our WWRC Foundation, which you can find at, makes VR Workforce Studio available through ITunes or you can subscribe by visiting  Also, check us out on Clammr and the new podcast section as VR Workforce.  That’s Clammr at  Be sure and let us know if you like the podcast.  You can always email me at  Until next time, let us create hope and a path forward to employment so individuals can work and lead more productive lives while enhancing our workforce and moving our economy forward.

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