Purdue Nonprofit Helps Farmers Keep Working Despite Ailments

January 18, 2016 08:30 PM

By Sherry Slater, The Journal Gazette

Farmers are known for squeezing every last bit of usefulness from things ... including their own bodies.

But that's not always easy.

"Farmers tend to get arthritis pretty regularly, and it makes it hard for them to do their jobs," said Ned Stoller, an agricultural assistive technology specialist with AgrAbility.

Formed in 1991, the Purdue University-based national nonprofit helps farmers find and pay for tools and technology that allow them to keep working whether they are slowed by arthritis, paralysis, amputation or other disabilities.

One example of such adaptive tools is a $35 glove that uses Velcro to firmly attach a tool to hands with limited gripping strength.

Mark Ziemann, a field sales trainer for K&M Manufacturing, attended the 27th annual Fort Wayne Farm Show with a colleague last week.

As they met with dealers, they were trying to decide whether Minnesota-based K&M should rent a booth next year to display products that include steps, handrails, mirrors, warning lights, swivel seats and other products that make older tractors more accessible.

K&M's products, which are used by some AgrAbility clients, work with tractors up to 80 years old.

Stoller, who works with AgrAbility's Michigan operation, said his office serves about 120 people a year. Anyone who contacts the nonprofit can schedule an evaluation of his daily tasks and what assistance he needs to perform them.

Charles and Annette Best were volunteering at the AgrAbility booth, ready to talk with anyone who doubts he can overcome a physical limitation.

Charlie, as he's called, lost his left hand in 1967 when he reached into a piece of farming equipment to try to dislodge an ear of corn that was stuck.

"He got careless," Annette said, adding that her 87-year-old husband adjusted very well to losing his hand and forearm.

"When that happened, there wasn't anything like this," Charlie said, referring to AgrAbility and the various tools it procures for clients.

Available technology includes a lift that can place even a paralyzed person on the seat of large farm machinery.

Ziemann's father could have used such a lift. He farmed into his 70s but eventually had to stop.

"The only thing that kept him from working was he couldn't get behind the wheel. He could do everything else" when it came to operating a tractor, Ziemann said.

The Life Essentials-brand lift, which is on display at AgrAbility's Farm Show booth, costs about $12,000. But it's not out of reach for even the most frugal farmer; the AgrAbility staff works with various funding sources to cover costs of technology a farmer needs to keep working, Stoller said. He described his work with disabled farmers as being like a case manager who coordinates services.

The average amount spent to make a farmer fully productive is $10,000, Stoller said.

Various supporters, including Ziemann, believe that's money well spent.

"Most farmers don't want to go on disability or sit around," he said. "They're a pretty hardworking bunch."

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