Agrability Program Helps Farmers Return to Work

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In 1981, Brenda Besse’s life changed suddenly. A star athlete from Hillsdale in Northwestern Illinois, in a matter of months she went from playing college basketball to learning to walk with a prosthesis.

“I was just a farm kid, 23, showing cattle at county fairs,” Besse says. “I went off to college, graduated in May 1981, started teaching and coaching, and got hurt in October.”

She was running the family combine, harvesting corn that was difficult to pick up due to a windstorm, when the farm machine stalled. She jumped off and tried to unplug the combine head, but her leg became tangled. Like the undertow of an ocean, the combine spun her around, and her leg came off at the knee.

“I landed on my face, rolled over and pulled myself over to the combine steps. I was running wide open on adrenaline,” Besse says. “There was no crying. Not a tear.”

All she could do was wait on her father, who had gone to empty the semi truck.

“Dad eventually got back, got out of the semi, ran over and wrapped his belt around my leg,” she recalls. “Then he went to the neighbors and called 911, and brought me back water.”

She relives the tragedy as if it were yesterday, though it’s been 30 years.

Illinois Agrability participants Brenda Besse and Randy Miller

Helping Farmers

Besse shares her experience often with other farmers as a volunteer for AgrAbility Unlimited, a statewide program that helps those in agriculture who have disabilities. The organization, created in 1990 as part of a national initiative, was originally funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant. A joint program of the University of Illinois Extension and the Easter Seals Central Illinois, it now seeks private funds to stay in business. The group was recently turned down for another USDA grant.

The organization, which has helped more than 800 farmers since its inception in 1991, is operating on a skeleton budget, says Chip Petrea, AgrAbility’s client service manager.

“We’re using donations from groups such as the Illinois Farm Bureau, GROWMARK and Farm Service
Agency to keep going. We’re not sure what we’re going to do for the long term.”

Petrea knows first hand how the program can help farmers. He was in a hay baler accident in 1978.

“I got hurt before [AgrAbility] got started, but I see how much we can help farmers,” Petrea says. “It’s not a stretch for me to do what I do to help farmers. We try to point them in the right direction after something happens.”

A total of 27 to 30 farm fatalities occurs in Illinois each year. According to Petrea, a recent survey found an average of 5,000 farming-related injuries each week cause U.S. farmers to miss at least a half-day of work.

Happy Endings

Besse, who is now working on a book about her experience, first learned about AgrAbility from an article in a magazine.

“I called the 800 number, and they helped me get a Gator for the cattle,” she says. “We decided I could utilize it to do baby bottles and haul feed buckets.”

Not long after her accident, her father sold the herd of Angus cattle. She says that devastated her as much as the accident itself.

Learn More

For more information about the program, visit www.agrabilityunlimited.org or call (217) 333-9417.

“I eventually left the farm and spent 15 years working for the Rock Island Arsenal in the civilian personnel office. It was a culture shock, working in an office,” she says. “I left there and spent a year mowing at a golf course, regrouping and ended up getting back in the cattle business – this time dairy.”

Her love for cattle helped her find her partner, Ron Paaske. Today, the two run Brierwood Farms.

“I’ve always loved cattle, and on my way to work at the Arsenal, I’d drive by a dairy and see a guy milking his cows,” says Besse.

“One day I was getting coffee, and he (Ron) was sitting at the farmers’ table. He poured me a cup of coffee. That went on for a couple of days and finally I said, ‘Who are you?’ And he replied, ‘I’m the guy with the cows. Stop down sometime.’ Well, I did, and the rest is history.”

AgrAbility Unlimited participant Randy Miller

Finding Hope

In October 2008, a semi-trailer truck broadsided Randy Miller’s grain truck, breaking his neck though not severing his spine. These days, he’s back to farming.

Petrea met with Miller in the spring 2009 to help him research new options, such as upgrading an older tractor with accessibility steps and using air-powered tools. Petrea also helped Miller get a reverse-facing camera and monitor for his combine cab so he didn’t have to strain his neck turning around.

But Miller says the biggest thing AgrAbility did was to give him hope.

“They showed me examples of people who had overcome their disabilities to continue farming,” says Miller, 43. “That’s what I needed. Chip came and visited me early on.”

Miller isn’t confined to a wheelchair – he uses a cane – but initially doctors said his chance of moving anything again was less than 3 percent.

“I still keep getting strength,” he says. “My left side doesn’t have the motor movement I had, and my foot drags sometimes, but I’m still farming. My brother, Marvin, helps me with the heavy lifting.”

Miller raises corn and soybeans on 440 acres in Chenoa.

“I’m blessed,” says Miller. “I’m up and mobile and still able to farm.”

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