Jim Zell. It’s a name that many farmers across Wisconsin know well, especially near the Mosinee area. Jim is a farmer, a son, a brother, an agriculture advocate, and above all a true friend to any one he meets. When you meet Jim there is very little silence. He is full of interesting stories about life, farming, and the treasures and mishaps along the way. He can make five hours seem like five minutes, filled with laughter and wisdom.
Jim’s family has owned the farm for over a century and many of his family members are still in the area. With various transitions throughout his life, the farm is still in operation even though it may look a little different. Jim explained the fields are home to different crops and there are primarily pasture-raised cattle today, but over the years it has survived the ups and downs of the industry.
When we first met Jim in the late 1990’s he struggled with getting around, suffering with mobility issues like many farmers who have been on the farm since the day they were born. For Jim, it wasn’t just the normal wear and tear of the everyday active and repetitive lifestyle; Jim was also in a serious accident in 1988 that required him to have a fusion done at the L3 level of his back. This has left him with recurring pain, making any chore or daily activity that requires pulling, pushing, or even carrying that much more difficult. Living with this pain and his limitations for over a decade while continuing to farm has increased Jim’s wear and tear, such as on his knees and shoulders. So he started looking into other options to help.
With the aid of assistive technology, Jim’s tractors have additional steps to decrease the height he must lift his feet to step up. With arthritis in his joints, it’s easy to see how this task could be challenging, but the steps help to alleviate some of the difficulty. Jim also continues to use his John Deere Gator, which he received with the funding help of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR). The Gator helps Jim travel throughout his farm to get to the cattle without added stress on his back, and has a utility cargo box to provide him with the space to take along any supplies he needs. When talking about his daily activities, Jim said, “I can’t imagine getting around without my Gator. It gives me more independence.” Jim has modified his farm to fit his needs as the times have changed with age, including adding a fence that automatically opens when he uses his Gator; this reduces the risk of him getting injured by manually opening these fences on hilly, uneven ground.
It’s clear when Jim talks to people that he has a deep passion for the work he is doing. Jim demonstrates this passion for agriculture by farming but also by encouraging young people to learn about agriculture. He has been an advocate for AgrAbility for many years—talking with farmers about the process, answering questions, attending summits and conventions. Jim is appreciative of the work he has been able to do with the help of AgrAbility, Easter Seals and DVR, and the program staff is grateful to have such a great “ag-vocate” in return.