Colorado AgrAbility " promoting independence |

Colorado AgrAbility " promoting independence

Becky Talley
Colorado AgrAbility Project

Aug. 1, 2004, was a day like most others on Gary Frihauf’s farm in Byers, Colo. Gary, who has been farming for his entire life, was filling his storage bins with his crop of malt barley, something that he had done many, many times before.

However, this particular time things went horribly wrong and Gary was stuck in a situation that would be a nightmare for any agriculture producer.

Gary was climbing a ladder to check the fill level of the bins, when the ladder collapsed just as he reached the top. Though he did what he could to keep from falling, Gary was sent plummeting to the ground.

“I rode the ladder part way down,” he recalled.

When Gary hit to the ground, he did significant damage to his spine, completely shattering one vertebra. Within days, he had major surgery to repair the damage, which included using one of his own ribs to provide a bone graft for his shattered vertebra. Later, the doctors told him that there had been a real possibility that he might not have survived the fall.

The accident landed Gary a significant stay in the hospital, a lot of pain and suffering, and a future of grueling physical therapy and long-term injury care.

However, it also raised another challenge for the farmer: How would he continue to farm his operation in light of his injuries?

As anyone who farms or ranches know, living the agriculture lifestyle can be very rewarding. It is not only a job but it is also a way of life with its own culture and community.

However, as anyone in agriculture also knows, it is a tough life and is very physically demanding even for the healthiest of people. Heavy lifting, bending, squatting and riding machinery over rough terrain are just a few of the daily tasks that many farmers perform.

And, after his accident, none of these tasks were easy for Gary to handle. He was given restrictions for lifting weight and lost a lot of his ability to twist and turn, among the many other challenges that go along with back injuries. For Frihauf, who runs the majority of his 420-plus irrigated acre operation by himself, this injury really posed a serious obstacle for the future of his operation.

But, true to the tough agriculture spirit, Gary was back out in his pickup watching over his farm just a couple of months after his accident and trying to do what he could to continue his business.

It was around this time that Gary was contacted by a unique group that knew they could help him continue to farm successfully and independently with his back injury.

Gary’s daughter-in-law had learned about the organization, the Colorado AgrAbility Project, and had contacted the group to find out about its services shortly after Gary was out of the hospital. The group then contacted Gary and began the process of providing him assistance.

Colorado AgrAbility, a joint venture between the USDA, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, and Easter Seals Colorado, works to promote independence in agriculture by helping farmers, ranchers and their family members who are facing challenges due to disability. The organization does this by providing education, workshops, on-site evaluations and assistance to help its clients stay in the agriculture business.

In Gary’s case, the AgrAbility team came to his farm to assess what they could do to help him.

“Once I got healed up a little bit they came out and did evaluations,” Gary said.

The team found that even with his injury, Gary had found ways to work around it and continue farming, as is common in the agriculture world. However, they knew that they could help with changes that would make his life easier.

After the initial contact, the AgrAbility representatives made recommendations for equipment and machinery adaptations to make Gary’s job easier. They also provided help in finding financial assistance to make the recommended changes possible. In Gary’s case, the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) provided a majority of the funding, as it has done for many other AgrAbility projects.

“Without them our program would not be nearly as successful,” said Jason Beck, Colorado AgrAbility Project Coordinator.

By this spring, the changes had been made to Gary’s farm and equipment, and they were making farming much easier. Swivel seats were installed in a couple of Gary’s tractors, so he wouldn’t have to physically turn his back to watch the implements and field behind him. Bin level indicators were also installed, so Gary wouldn’t have to climb to the top of a bin to see how full it was. The DVR provided Gary a VersaLift, which allowed him to lift anything heavy with just a push of a button. In addition, Gary was provided with a drum truck and drum crane for his truck, to help him lift drums of oil and seed sacks, which is his side business. Gary’s grain augers were also modified to include an electric winch instead of the traditional hand lift needed to raise or lower the machine. And finally, Gary was provided with irrigation pipe, so he would no longer have to move and set his pipe to water his crops.

According to Beck, what is great about the equipment provided is that it can be used for a lot of different tasks beyond the recommended use, which gives the client a chance to be innovative and make the equipment his or her own.

“Our program isn’t going to fix everybody 100 percent, but we can sure help a lot,” he said.

For Gary, who didn’t know about the organization, it was amazing to find out how much help AgrAbility could provide.

“I had no idea what they would supply and what they could do. I am really surprised at what they can do,” he said.

The adaptations that were made to his equipment have made it much easier and quicker to continue his farming.

“It will help a lot. Last year everything was done in slow motion. I got it done but not quite as soon.”

Because of this, Gary is able to continue independently working in the trade that he has devoted much of his life to, and he recommends AgrAbility to others who may be in the same situation.

“You’re kind of lost without it. It was a blessing.”

For more information about the Colorado AgrAbility Project please contact Bob Fetsch at (970) 491-5648 or e-mail him at


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