Doug Boswell was paralyzed from the waist down in a four-wheeler accident. Carey Portell sustained critical injuries in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. Lee Howerton has dealt with poor vision and light sensitivity his whole life.
They may have different disabilities, challenges and stories, but these three farmers are connected. They’ve endured tremendous hardships, emerging stronger on the other side. They’ve adapted their lifestyle to preserve their livelihood. They’re united by common themes of patience, acceptance and persistence.
What they also have in common is the Missouri AgrAbility Project, a program that provides free services to enhance the quality of life for farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers with disabilities or chronic health problems. AgrAbility works with all types of operations and conditions, said Karen Funkenbusch, project director and University of Missouri state health specialist.
“AgrAbility offers solutions that allow these farmers to continue contributing to agriculture in Missouri,” she said. “It offers them continued self-employment and the rural lifestyle they want and need. Above all, it offers them hope.”
Administered by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, AgrAbility does not provide direct funding to clients. Rather, the staff conducts interviews and on-farm assessments to determine a farmer’s needs and then works with third-party funding sources to obtain assistive technologies, devices or modifications, Funkenbusch explained. Partners include Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, a division of Missouri Department of Social Services.
“When you’re talking about Missouri agriculture, our farms are so diverse,” Funkenbusch said. “Everything AgrAbility does is customized to meet that particular farmer’s situation, and that’s why it takes a team approach.”
Even though the national program is nearly 30 years old, authorized by the 1990 Farm Bill and funded on a four-year cycle, the AgrAbility Project isn’t widely known outside the circles of its beneficiaries. Seeing their successes is the best way to illustrate the program’s impact, Funkenbusch said.
“Look at their stories. These farmers persevere,” she said. “They have to rise above because life hasn’t been fair to them, but they don’t let that get in the way of living and doing what they love.”
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2017. Boswell and his wife, Teresa, drove from their home in Springfield, Mo., to their farm in Stockton, where they were renovating the property and tearing out old fences to make way for new ones.
After several hours of work, Boswell still needed to feed the cattle, but then told his wife he’d be done afterward. The simple task became complicated when one cow took off running. With no fences to keep her in, Boswell knew he had to chase her down. He jumped on Teresa’s four-wheeler and sped after the maverick cow. When she stopped suddenly, he stopped, too. The ATV flipped, and they both went tumbling.
“I have a split second I don’t remember, and then I was rolling on the ground, the four-wheeler was rolling end over end beside me and dirt was flying,” he recalled. “When I finally landed, I laid there for a minute trying to get my breath back, and then I went to get up. I couldn’t. I looked at my legs, and they weren’t moving.”
Boswell had shattered his right shoulder, broken all the ribs on his left side and punctured a lung. Worst of all, a triangular metal piece on the rear of the ATV had fractured his vertebrae and paralyzed him from the waist down.
“It didn’t cut my spinal cord in half, but it hit me hard enough that it bruised the nerves so that they don’t talk to each other anymore,” Boswell explained. “I have some tingling in my legs, but if you touch me, I can’t feel it at all.”
He was flown by medical helicopter to Mercy Hospital in Springfield and then spent several weeks in rehabilitation centers before going to Denver, Colo., for a two-month stay at Craig Hospital, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries.
It was there that Boswell learned of AgrAbility.
“At Craig, their main objective was to teach me how to live with what I’ve got,” he said. “They want to get you back to doing what you were doing before—in my case, farming. That’s why they put me in touch with AgrAbility. If they hadn’t done that, I’d still be trying to figure it out on my own.”
Four months after the accident, Boswell came home, feeling lost. Before, he had been a Snap-On Tools salesman, running routes in the Springfield area. That wasn’t an option anymore. He had the farm, but he wasn’t sure how to run a cattle operation with his disabilities. AgrAbility helped him find his way.
“I didn’t know what else to do, really,” Boswell said. “I was worried about how to go back to work and make money again. I’m pretty good at sales, but that’s hard to do from a wheelchair. Farming is what I wanted to do anyway, and AgrAbility got me hooked up with the right people.”
Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation helped fund the technology Boswell needed to continue farming. He now has an all-terrain wheelchair with tracks and a chair lift on his flatbed pickup that can raise him into the seat of his tractors and truck, which he operates with hand controls. AgrAbility also helped him set up a cattle-working system that is safe and accessible from his wheelchair.
Even with this technology, adjusting to life as a paraplegic hasn’t been easy, Boswell admitted. But he’s determined to farm—and farm successfully.
“I’ve never been one to cry, but I’ve cried so much over the past two years,” he said. “I’ve always had a good attitude about everything I’ve ever done in my life, but this has really knocked me down. It’s been tough. But I realize you can either sit down and do nothing or go on with your life.”
Today, the Boswells are building a handicapped-accessible home on their picturesque 160-acre farm. With help from his adaptive equipment, Boswell, now 54, maintains a herd of around 30 cattle, produces his own hay and takes care of farm chores. He hasn’t found much he can’t do, although he admits he’s had to learn to be patient.
“Some things have been pretty simple. Some things have been incredibly hard,” Boswell said. “Before, whenever I needed something done, I just did it. Now, everything I do is so slow and takes so much more time, but I’m getting used to it.”
Ultimately, Boswell wants to walk again, and he’s pursued that goal at various rehabilitation centers across the country. Neurosurgeons and other doctors have given him little hope, but he refuses to accept their prognosis.
“I don’t want to believe that I’ll never walk,” Boswell said. “I’m going every place I can to try to figure out how to make it happen.”
Drunk-driving crashes don’t always happen in the wee hours of the morning after last call at the local bar. Sometimes they happen when least expected, in early evening, on the way to Zumba class.
That’s what happened to Carey Portell on a fateful December day nearly nine years ago. The then 35-year-old and her daughters, Olivia, 12 at the time, and Mackenzie, 10, were only a few miles from their St. James, Mo., farm when they were hit head-on by a drunk driver. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The girls were treated and released from the hospital within a day.
Portell, however, had to be extricated from her crumpled Ford Taurus and suffered devastating injuries: a fractured pelvis, crushed right ankle and dislocated left foot.
Since then, she’s had 11 surgeries to repair the damage. The bones in her ankles and pelvis are fused. She was confined to a wheelchair for two years. It was four years before she walked again. With such severe, permanent injuries to her lower body, her mobility is limited. Her spirit is not.
“People are always asking me how I deal with all of it,” Portell said. “It’s just one day at a time.”
When the crash happened, she and her husband, Greg, had been raising Corriente cattle for rodeo stock. They sold them all after she came home from the hospital. It was a year and a half before they would do any farming again.
“Finally, we realized this was wrong,” Portell said. “We shouldn’t have to give up everything that we’d worked for and wanted to do in life because of the accident. We don’t want to have any regrets.”
In 2012, they started with 40 head of Angus cattle and have grown the herd to around 120 today. At first, Portell was disheartened, finding that even simple tasks took a tremendous toll on her mind and body.
“Acceptance was the hardest part,” Portell said. “I wasn’t angry or frustrated that the accident happened because there was nothing I could do about it. But my mind still said I could do all these things, and I just couldn’t.”
Enter AgrAbility. Portell learned about the organization during an MU Extension workshop for women involved in livestock production. She reached out to Funkenbusch for help.
“I was trying to do everything the old way, and it wasn’t working,” Portell said. “For example, I was still trying to feed with buckets and bags. But lifting 50 pounds puts way too much pressure on me. I had a hard time thinking in terms of how it is now instead of the way it used to be. It wasn’t just a physical change; it had to be mental, too.”
As the self-described “herdswoman,” Portell takes care of the day-to-day chores, handles the bookkeeping and helps with working cattle, harvesting hay and maintaining the farm. Greg focuses on genetics and marketing in addition to his full-time job in convenience store construction.
“On good days, farming is my physical therapy. It gets my joints moving and muscles going. And mentally, it gives me something I can accomplish,” she said. “But there are days, especially when it’s damp and cold, I just cannot do it. It’s such a conflict inside me because I enjoy being able to do the work.”
AgrAbility and Vocational Rehabilitation helped Portell acquire the equipment she needed to make chores easier and more efficient—from anti-vibration ergonomic gloves that lessen the painful effects of bumpy tractor rides to a utility vehicle with a bulk feeder attached, which allows her to drive beside feed bunks and dispense the herd’s dinner without leaving the seat.
“My biggest problem is always how many steps I can take and the energy I need to do that,” Portell explained. “I’m limited to about 3,000 steps a day before I just can’t go anymore.”
Over the next year, she and Greg plan to build a fully handicapped accessible house on a 380-acre farm they own in Crawford County. Their youngest child, Drew, will graduate from high school next year, leaving them with an empty nest. Portell said it was the right time to make the transition.
“My deterioration is inevitable, and I will eventually be wheelchair bound,” she said. “The house we are in now won’t work. I’m doing everything possible to prolong my mobility and manage the pain. I am so scared that if I give in a little, then I will lose my will. I don’t want to quit. I’m not ready yet.”
At the new farm, Portell plans to ask AgrAbility for help designing infrastructure, placing buildings, barns and pens in the most efficient way possible for someone with limited mobility.
“AgrAbility has made such a difference in my life on the farm, and it’s comforting to know they will have me covered as my needs change,” she said. “Working with AgrAbility means there’s someone saying, ‘Hey, we’re here. We’ve got you.’”
While farming is her personal purpose, Portell said inspiration has become her purpose for others. She not only writes a regular blog, but she also speaks to audiences ranging from school groups and churches to agricultural audiences and even Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She addresses the consequences of impaired and distracted driving, farming with disabilities and spiritual faith in times of crisis.
“In the beginning, it was only for me,” Portell said. “Every time I did a talk, it was a heal-and-purge process, and I would feel a little bit of the heaviness fall away. Now, I can see it in the audience’s faces. We’re connecting. They’re listening. I feel like I’m bringing something good out of what happened.”
Even with his thick glasses and protective shades, Lee Howerton is having a hard time seeing his cattle across the pasture of his Hurdland, Mo., farm. Believe it or not, there’s an app for that. The producer points his smartphone camera toward the herd, and the device turns into a high-definition visual magnifier.
Howerton has dealt with low vision and light sensitivity his whole life, but technology has made living with these optical obstacles easier in recent years.
“I can do just about anything I want to do, I just have to be careful and take my time,” he said. “I’ve always had to be creative and figure out what my eyesight will allow.”
Howerton describes his vision as if he sees someone walking toward him, but the person’s face isn’t in focus. He compares the light sensitivity to watching someone who’s welding.
On the farm, he wears prescription glasses with heavy plum-tinted sunglasses over the top to filter light. He carries a monocular in his pocket and keeps binoculars handy.
“I can usually manage what I need with those, but even then, my eyes get sore, especially if I have a busy day,” Howerton said. “It just depends on what I’m doing.”
The 55-year-old has farmed this Knox County land since he graduated from high school in 1981 and started working with his father, Delbert. Back then, the operation was a pretty typical diversified Missouri farm—row crops, cattle and hogs—but as his father’s health and Howerton’s eyesight declined, they shifted to beef cattle, sheep and hay.
“I got to where I wasn’t able to run a combine or do finer field work,” Howerton said. “After my father passed away in 2005, we liquidated his cows, and I began building my own herd. That’s when I also started phasing out hay and doing more rotational grazing. It’s easier for me to move poly wire and temporary fence than it is to bale hay and move it around.”
Today, Howerton rents out his crop ground and maintains about 120 head of cattle on 500 acres of pasture. He also transitioned his sheep operation from raising club lambs to producing hair sheep that don’t require shearing. He changed calving and lambing seasons to warmer months, avoiding winter-born babies and giving him more daylight to check on newborns.
AgrAbility, along with Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, has helped Howerton farm more effectively with his visual limitations for more than 20 years. His first request was a Kawasaki Mule utility vehicle.
“What I really needed at that time was off-road transportation,” Howerton said. “I used to have a restricted driver’s license, but I wasn’t confident about driving my pickup anymore. I drove that Mule for years. It really opened up what I could do.”
Through the years, Howerton also has benefited from AgrAbility assistance with text-to-speech readers, magnifying technology, livestock working equipment and cattle scales.
“That was a big deal for me,” he said. “My eyesight doesn’t allow me to estimate weights of my cattle with confidence. When we work our calves, we want to wean at 450 pounds, so the scales let me know exactly how much they weigh.”
Howerton and his wife of 34 years, Sara, have three grown children and a 12-year-old son, Tage, who has autism. The Howertons hope to include him in the farming operation someday. AgrAbility also works with youth and can help with that goal, Funkenbusch said.
At 56, Howerton has no plans to retire, even though his eyesight continues to deteriorate.
“I looked into getting on disability once, but apparently I work too much,” Howerton said. “It was discouraging, but I’d rather farm anyway. I enjoy taking care of livestock. I love the sustainable aspect of agriculture. I love the challenge of trying to make my grass do better. I’m not one to sit still for long.”
As longtime AgrAbility clients, the Howertons are considered one of the program’s “success stories,” Funkenbusch said. They’ve even been asked to speak at AgrAbility training workshops about their experiences. Howerton said his message is simple: He isn’t sure he could be farming today without AgrAbility.
“It’s relieved some stressful situations, things I was worried about or having trouble with,” Howerton said. “I’m able to do a better job at what I do because of AgrAbility’s help.”