AgrAbility program from MU helps farmers after injury

  • Published: Thursday, June 26, 2014

BETHEL, Mo –Chris Allen wanted out of the bed. He argued with hospital staff that he needed to go home to harvest crops, feed cattle and cut firewood to heat his farmhouse. 

The lifelong Shelby County farmer had a brain aneurysm that resulted in a life-threatening hemorrhagic stroke on his farm in August of 2010. But the thought of crops in the field nagged at him while he was a patient at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis and Rusk Rehabilitation in Columbia.

“I knew I needed to get home and get ready for harvest,” he said. “The truth of the matter is at that time I couldn’t have done anything. Physically and mentally I wasn’t up to it.”

Allen’s friends, neighbors and family rallied to harvest his crops that fall and care for his cattle. Allen is now able to farm, in part thanks to support of AgrAbility, a program through the University of Missouri Extension and the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

The Missouri AgrAbility Project, part of a national program administered by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, provides support and resources for farmers and ranchers with disabilities or chronic health issues.

For Allen and many others, farming isn’t just a job. It’s a way of life that scorns help from others and prides itself on independence. Karen Funkenbusch, AgrAbility program director with MU Extension, said Allen’s attitude is not uncommon for injured farmers. When physical obstacles interfere with a farmers’ lifestyle, the effects can be devastating.

Allen’s partner, Sherry Nelson, walked the difficult path to recovery with him. She had counseled others with brain injuries when she worked at Fulton State Hospital before working for MU Extension. Nelson never expected to apply those practices in her own home. She now does this as part of her job as an MU Extension human development specialist and the AgrAbility coordinator for Northeast Missouri.

Simple tasks became challenges as Allen slowly regained cognitive abilities and physical strength. He just thought he needed to get back to work. But Allen found there were surprising aspects to his brain injury recovery.

He realized he couldn’t read a tape measure when he went to measure a broken axle. He also couldn’t tell time and he was disorganized, forgetful and easily fatigued. Sensitivity to pain and the effects of arthritis became more intense.

He adjusted by reducing his cattle herd and farming fewer acres. With help from AgrAbility and Vocational Rehabilitation, Allen learned to use assistive devices.

Among these were an all-terrain vehicle used to ride fence lines and check cattle and crops, as well as a hearing aid. He also replaced the manual hydraulic valve with an electric over hydraulic valve to reduce the physical force needed to operate farm implements. Reducing the shoulder movement diminished arthritic shoulder pain, in turn decreasing fatigue.

Although he was planning to buy a bigger planter, the brain injury that caused fatigue sealed the deal for his purchase. The bigger planter allowed him to plant more acres before tiring.

AgrAbility also suggested that he equip his tractors with ergonomic seats to reduce fatigue and back-up screens to increase visibility for safety. Allen also finds that when his fatigue is reduced, his memory and judgment work better.

His short-term memory has improved but not fully returned, so he relies on an iPad as his “portable brain.” He uses the tablet’s recording device to make “to do” notes to himself. He also records conversations, documenting “word of mouth” deals common among farmers to sell cattle and buy supplies. It helps him with planning so he can be more efficient.

Allen said fatigue plagues him physically and mentally. “It’s invisible,” he says. “A lot of people with brain injuries can appear very normal – being without a physical disability. But when you have to reroute your brain processes it is very fatiguing and that effects how you process information. People don’t see or understand that.”

Allen thinks it’s important to help professionals learn how to help farmers continue being self-reliant. He has been the speaker at several state, national and international brain injury conferences recently to try to get that message across.

Meanwhile, his crop is planted, cattle are fed and fences are mended.  A farmer’s work is never done, he says, and work accomplished is the medicine that heals the best.

Contact the Missouri AgrAbility Project at 800-995-8503 for more information or go to

Writer: Linda Geist

Media Contact

Karen Funkenbusch

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