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Low-impact ag

Composer Eubie Blake once said, “If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself.” Blake played and recorded ragtime music until shortly before his death at the age of 100.

Many farmers today are in a similar situation. With an average age of 57, their longer life expectancy and greater farm mechanization have raised the age limits for remaining active. But physical limits still pose significant speed bumps.

Arthritis tops the list. “I was able to carry four buckets of water at a time,” says Indiana farmer Mike Williams. “If something was in my way, I moved it. Years of hard work took a toll on my joints.”

Margaret Teaford recorded scores of similar farmer comments at county fairs and ag events last year. Teaford, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Ohio State University's College of Medicine, says it's not surprising that 60-year-old farmers have arthritis.

“But many in their early 50s had a serious arthritic condition,” she says. “Some said that by the time they turned 50, they knew they'd need a joint replaced.”

Osteoarthritis, the most common form, is caused by trauma or recurring harsh impact to a joint, which results in painful inflammation. From 1990 to 2006, osteoarthritis in the U.S. rose from 11.65% to 25%. Obesity is one factor.

Teaford and Sharon Flinn, assistant professor in Ohio State University's School of Allied Medical Professions, want to raise awareness among farmers that arthritis doesn't have to be part of aging. Helped by 20 Extension educators and occupational therapy/health science college students, they screened 650 farmers.

Screenings included a checklist of contributing factors such as family history and daily activities. Physical tests, such as asking farmers to stand on one foot, were part of the screening. Farmers received materials including management tips, exercise suggestions, work area improvement ideas, and advice about pain medications.

“For farmers with arthritis, exercising and stretching can warm up muscles and decrease the risk of injury,” Teaford says. “Farmers need to use good body mechanics and eliminate jumps to the ground and other unnecessary impacts on their knees. If you protect your joints, you can go a long way in managing the disease.”

She is working with Ohio University's AgrAbility ( to provide advice about retrofitting equipment. “Added hand holds are a way to shift weight from stress points,” says Steve Swain, AgrAbility assistive technology specialist. “Added steps decrease the straining height of frequent motions. Improved seating reduces vibrating stress, and arm rests take weight off the back and shoulders.”

In 2005, Indiana farmer Keith Morgan was insulating his shop when he felt something give. “I looked, and the ladder was sliding,” he says. Morgan fell 16 feet, severely crushing bones in his ankles.

Months later, after Morgan was walking, Swain used state and federal grants to install a lift on his combine, wider steps with a handrail on a tractor, and 1-foot-wide circular grain bin steps.

Teaford is screening at pesticide trainings this winter. “Surgery is expensive,” she says. “Joint replacements last about 20 years. If you get one in your 50s, you may need it replaced in your 70s. It's a more difficult surgery. Preventive strategies postpone surgery as long as possible.”

Her goal is to pair Extension and hospital professionals to schedule regular screenings and to form farmer networks that expand access to advice about best-management practices for arthritis.

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