A New Chance at Life Brings New Life to the Family Farm

   Strong and resilient, Aaron Fenrich didn’t dwell on what he thought was nagging heartburn the morning of April 25, 2013. Instead, he packed his lunch and left for work at Hillside Dairy where he drove truck and did light maintenance ten miles away.

“A couple miles down the road, I pulled over,” Fenrich said. “It felt like my heart was turning into a rubber ball.” 

“I made the 911 call.  I was at peace, thinking ‘Ok, this is how it’s going to be.’”   

His case of indigestion was actually an aortic dissection. “The artery out of the top of my heart---think of it like a hydraulic hose---frayed but didn’t quite break,” he said. Only about five in 100 cases of aortic dissections survive.  

Parked alongside the road, four-way flashers marking his location, he directed police to his vehicle through the emergency operator. 

Only pieces of the next twelve hours remain clear as he was evaluated, re-evaluated,  then rushed from local care to a specialized facility that evening. One thing that does stand out is multiple visits with a priest. 

Thinking he had missed only a day or two, he awoke from a coma a week later.  A bovine valve now controlled the hydraulics on his artery where once his own valve was the gatekeeper. He spent the next month in the hospital and rehabilitation facilities in Grand Rapids. 

Early in his recovery, lingering effects pointed to the possibility of losing his ability to maintain employment. He was restricted to lifting twenty pounds. His CDL was revoked. He watched as a regular paycheck disappeared in the rear view mirror. 

Meanwhile, the farm which he and his siblings inherited from their grandparents, continued that season without his help. When they initially took over the farm, Aaron and his brother Art, along with the help of nephews, raised and sold some hay, renting the remaining fields to a neighbor. “We sold enough hay to pay the taxes,” Aaron added. In 2012, the brothers began to realize that they could do more than just pay the bills with their inheritance. “We could really make something out of this.” 

And so they began converting previously rented fields into hay, baling and selling square bales of hay for the benefit of their own business.  

The first season of expanded harvest began about a month after his artery failure.   

His brother and nephews carried on without him. 

In spite of Aaron’s condition, by 2015, the entire farm had transitioned back to the family's control and seeded to alfalfa and grass mixes. However, side effects of his experience created issues just as compelling as his work restrictions. When he focused intently for long periods, migraines set in. Numbness in his arms and hands, dizzy spells and blurred vision episodes occurred randomly. Any thought of retraining for a desk or non-physical job were precluded by the random after effects.  

“And this is what led me to finding AgrAbility and working with them to help me carry on in farming,” Aaron said.

“I was pretty skeptical at first but they told me they might be able to help me and keep me farming and not get on the welfare rolls. And that is exactly what they did.” 

After Ned Stoller, AgrAbility Engineer, made his initial visit to the brothers’ Allegan County farm; he brought the case to Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS). Local counselor Carrie Dattels assisted Aaron in acquiring a grapple and bale stacker along and an additional tractor providing extra horsepower. What was once all hand labor has been mostly mechanized. “Ned; Carrie; those people are awesome, they don’t get enough thanks for what they do,” he added. 

"I love working with farm clients," Dattels said. "It is satisfying to see how we can help them keep going, keep farming." 

This summer, the baler counter registered over 5000 bales. Another 250 round bales are tucked in the barn. More opportunities and additional land have fallen into place and Aaron believes that he is where he is supposed to be, doing what he is supposed to be doing. “Man, if you can’t see God’s handwriting on the wall; pieces just fell into place like I never would have imagined,” he added. 

“I am able to maintain a quality of life, pay the bills and that takes a lot of stress off me. If I run into trouble, I can stop the tractor and take care of myself until I can go again. I’m not on anybody else’s dime.” 

 “Yeah, the process took a little longer than I expected but I can’t believe how blessed I am to have met these people” Aaron said. “What it means, what it is going forward, I can, literally with the issues I have, turn out more hay by myself than I could with a crew of four guys. It has opened up possibilities for us.” 

 “Aaron had given up on furthering his career,” Ned Stoller said. “He did not think he could ever really provide for himself again after his heart condition. When AgrAbilty and MRS stepped up to help Aaron consider his vocational options and assistive technology, his whole outlook changed. He started thinking of ways to make a gainful living instead of just ways to survive.” 

While the system still needs fine tuning, Fenrich agrees that the tools he now embraces have helped him push forward both mentally and physically. 

As a way of giving back, Aaron will attend a tradeshows representing Michigan AgrAbility this fall and winter. “It’s the least I can do to lessen the load for Ned and the crew for all they’ve done for me,” he said. 








Posted on Wednesday, February 8, 2017