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AgrAbility: Cultivating Independence for People with Disabilities in Agriculture

Nifa Author
Lori Tyler Gula, Senior Public Affairs Specialist

In December 2010, Carey Portell’s life shattered when a drunk driver collided head-on with her vehicle on Route 66, a few miles from her St. James, Missouri, home. She suffered a fractured pelvis, crushed right ankle and dislocated left foot.  

The following information originally appeared in AgrAbility: 30 Years of Impact.

After undergoing two surgeries, Portell remembers waking up to hear her eight-year-old son saying, “Thank you for staying alive, Mom.” “When I looked down, my legs were in external fixators,” said Portell. “I knew it was bad, but I had no clue how long or how hard my recovery would be.” Limited to wheelchair use for almost two years, it was four years before she walked again without support. She had 10 subsequent operations, fusing the joints in her ankles and bones in her pelvis. 

In 2014, Portell attended a University of Missouri conference for women in agriculture where she met Missouri AgrAbility Director Karen Funkenbusch. Funkenbusch contacted the state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) and encouraged Portell to apply to become a client. With help from Missouri AgrAbility and VR, she received funding to buy a Polaris Ranger UTV with an automatic feeder attached.  

“The UTV keeps me from being bumped over by cows and from flying calf hooves,” said Portell. “I don’t have to walk on ground with frozen hoof prints. It’s the most essential piece of equipment I’ve received.” Other adaptations reduce Portell’s fatigue, including anti-vibration gloves and remote-control pasture gates. Today, the Portells tend 120 head of Angus on their 1,000 acres. “The cows give me a purpose,” said Portell. 

Improving Lives 

It is estimated that at least 634,000 people in the U.S. farm and ranch population have a disability. For more than 30 years, the AgrAbility Program, supported by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), has reached out to empower individuals with disabilities to keep doing what they love. AgrAbility’s efforts have helped enhance quality of life, not only for individuals, but also for families and communities.  

AgrAbility has grown from eight demonstration projects in 1991 to 21 funded projects today. Over the years, the program has developed an impressive body of collective knowledge to assist clientele. It has consistently embarked on new and more effective strategies for conducting evidence-based outreach.  

During its 30-year history, AgrAbility has provided direct, on-site services to more than 13,600 people. A typical site visit involves an AgrAbility staff member touring the client’s operation to identify barriers to productivity and discuss potential solutions.  

Ongoing services include additional visits, phone follow-up and referrals to other assisting organizations, such as state vocational rehabilitation agencies. In addition to these intensive on-site services, AgrAbility staff members have assisted hundreds of thousands of people through phone contacts, emails, workshops, publications, exhibits at events and web resources. 

AgrAbility assists people with all types of abilities – and disabilities. While some clients have sustained traumatic injuries, such as those incurred in farm- or vehicle-related incidents, many others struggle with chronic conditions, such as back impairments, arthritis and other joint-related limitations.  

It’s not just physical disabilities that AgrAbility addresses. Staff members also help clients who have mental/behavioral health issues, including veterans with post traumatic stress. More recently, farm stress and mental health have come to the forefront, and AgrAbility has responded by participating in efforts such as the NIFA-funded Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network and by conducting Mental Health First Aid and Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) Prevention trainings as part of suicide prevention. 

Serving Diverse Audiences 

AgrAbility has made significant strides in reaching out to agricultural populations that have been considered underserved. Since 2014, the National AgrAbility Project has conducted nine workshops at the historically Black 1890 Land-grant Institutions, one of which has received its own AgrAbility project grant, and two workshops on Native American reservations.  

In addition, various states work extensively with Latino farmworkers, and the National AgrAbility Project recently added a Latino Outreach Coordinator to its staff. Given the significant Amish/Old Order Anabaptist populations in several states, both national and state AgrAbility staff members have engaged in multiple networking activities with these groups. 

In addition, agriculture has become an important source of employment and healing for military veterans. After leaving the service, many discover that working in agriculture fulfills them in ways that other occupations can’t.  

AgrAbility engages with veterans at multiple levels. For example, National AgrAbility collaborates closely with the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), and many state projects work with their state FVC chapters. Other examples of AgrAbility veteran initiatives include participation in USDA AgVets grant projects and the development of unique state programs like Maine AgrAbility’s “Boots-2-Bushels” and Texas AgrAbility’s “Battleground to Breaking Ground.” 

Partnering with Extension 

An important aspect of AgrAbility’s structure is the requirement for partnerships: Land-grant University Extension services must subcontract with nonprofit disability services organizations. Agricultural expertise is provided through the university, and the nonprofit provides disability expertise.  

Over the 30 years of AgrAbility, more than 40 universities have been involved and an even greater number of nonprofits have participated, including Easterseals, Goodwill, Arthritis Foundation, Tech Act projects, United Cerebral Palsy, centers for independent living, Osteoarthritis Action Alliance, AgriSafe Network and many more. 

Since AgrAbility is not allowed to provide funding or equipment to clients through its USDA grants, it relies heavily on state vocational rehabilitation agencies to supply assistive technologies, building modifications and other critical services. Funding from external organizations like agriculture-related companies and foundations is also important to supporting outreach. 

The deadline to submit applications for the next round of AgrAbility funding is January 19. 

Top Image:  Farmer Carey Portell uses a Polaris Ranger UTV with an automatic feeder attached. Credit: AgrAbility. 

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