by Sally Colby
Farmers are eager to talk about the weather, the growing season and the market, but they’re usually reluctant to talk about their physical limitations or ask for help with tasks they can’t perform.
Everyone is familiar with the statistics for the average age of a farmer — around 56 or perhaps 59 depending on the survey. “Farmers know they’re old,” said Ned Stoller, Michigan AgrAbility agricultural engineer and assistive technology professional. “And they know they’re getting older. If you’re over 50, you’re an aging farmer. You aren’t moving as fast as you used to, it hurts your knees to climb the ladder. You don’t hear as well, and it hurts to twist your neck.”
The problem is that a farmer over the age of 50 is highly unlikely to report any of those issues as a ‘disability’. Stoller says a study showed that in general, farmers are much more hesitant to seek healthcare than the average population. “For whatever reason,” he said, “getting healthcare is a conflict with the farm culture.”
Farmers believe they have to conserve time and money, and seeking health care would consume both. “The point at which they would get healthcare is when they thought the farm business is in danger because of their health condition,” said Stoller, citing a survey on aging farmers. “The final push is when symptoms were intolerable, there was pressure from other people on the farm urging them to go, and when they became convinced that the treatment would yield benefit to them.”
But yielding clear results isn’t always something that can be promised. Stoller says that in dealing with older farmers, the approach cannot be ‘you are getting older, that’s dangerous, or you shouldn’t be doing that.’ “Farmers know they’re getting older, and the reality is that the average age of the farmer is 57 isn’t because there’s an absence of young farmers, but because older farmers continue to work until they’re in their 80s and 90s.”
The reality, and the fact, is that there is a large group of older people who are working on the farm, and Stoller wants them to understand the value of reducing the risk of injury.
Rather than using the term ‘disability’, Stoller prefers to ask a farmer, ‘how do you feel at 6 in the evening as compared to 30 years ago?’ They might reply, ‘I have fatigue, I don’t hear as well as I used to, or my reaction time is slower.’ Those medical impairments increase the risk of further injury or accident due to not hearing someone calling, not seeing an obstacle, or hearing a tractor behind them. Or perhaps arthritis prevented the person from lifting their foot even one-half inch higher to get onto the tractor step, resulting in a fall.
That fall comes with significant costs: the initial emergency room visit as well as follow up orthopedic visits, physical therapy, medication and appliances such as crutches or a boot. One person is down, and another will have to drive the injured person to appointments. What about the person who fills in for the injured farmer? Will he or she perform tasks as needed?
Farmers don’t believe they are handicapped — they believe they ‘have trouble getting around or get tired faster’. Fatigue and arthritis cause tripping and falling, older farmers fall more easily, there’s potential for accidents because it’s too hard to move their head to see and farmers and those around them are injured by unawareness due to hearing loss.
In order for farmers to buy into the idea of assistive technology, Stoller says the farmer must have a sound understanding of the value it brings to them. “Think about the safety of other people on the farm,” he said. “What about running over someone on the property because it hurts to twist and look behind them while operating equipment?” Farmers who have sore knees or hips often don’t want to get off the tractor to hitch a piece of equipment because it’s painful might have a young person hold the wagon tongue as they back up. If it hurts to twist around to look while backing up, that person holding the wagon tongue is at risk. Or if the farmer’s arthritic knee gives out and his foot slips off the clutch, the tractor could lurch backward rapidly and someone behind could be seriously injured or killed.
Stoller describes some assistive technologies that can help farmers continue to work safely. For farmers who have arthritis in the hands, gloves with Velcro webbing help hold a tool in place, or a robo-handle can provide a 90-degree gripping angle to remove strain from the wrist and transfer some of the load to the forearm.
A rear-view camera can be added to a tractor to allow the farmer to use a screen to see a person or obstacle without having to twist his body around. Stoller says that a simple camera can be purchased for $300, which is a small price to pay to ensure safety. For the farmer who can’t move his foot to a brake pedal quickly, a hand control lever can assist. A commercial model is available for about $150, but Stoller says that many farmers can make the adaption with materials they already have.
Some technologies help a farmer stay on the tractor without having to get off and on frequently. An overhead door with a remote control can replace a sliding door to minimize climbing. An extra set of steps added to a sprayer unit would allow a farmer with arthritis to easily climb to the top rather than take one or two very steep steps.
A portable aluminum step platform allows a farmer to enter and exit a skid steer, tractor, bulldozer or other equipment without compromising safety. Stoller says that equipment such as a skid steer is an accommodation itself — it becomes the shovel that prevents back or shoulder strain. While a traditional four-wheeler used to travel from one part of the farm to another might be difficult to mount and drive, there are plenty of other choices, such as a golf cart, that are easy to access and drive.
Stoller says it’s important that doctors are aware of farm culture; that the farmer has work to do and he intends to do it. “For a doctor to say, ‘no more climbing’ or ‘you can’t work on the farm’ is crippling the farmer’s way of life,” he said. “It’s important for farmers to educate doctors about their work, and once the doctor can give medical advice that’s ‘real’ to the farmer’s life, it’s important that the farmer follows that advice.”
Using assistive technology is smart, efficient and productive. “Preventing fatigue is not being lazy,” said Stoller. “Farmers are smart, and they’re accustomed to making good decisions to stay in business when they see value.”